Maria Cantwell

Senate Breaks Century-Old Precedent in Approving Seattle Judge

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

Seattle attorney Eric Miller was confirmed this week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of Washington’s two Democratic senators, breaking a precedent dating back a century and foreshadowing a continuing attempt by President Trump to place more conservative judges on the federal bench. [Photo Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo]

A Seattle-based Assistant US Attorney was confirmed this week by the Senate to a lifetime appointment on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was the first time in a century that a federal judge was confirmed without the endorsement of at least one US senator from the nominee’s home state.

Eric Miller, 43, a presidential nominee who formerly clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was confirmed on a party-line vote over the objections of Washington Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. They declined to return “blue slips” indicating support for Miller because of what they called his “hostility toward tribal rights.” Murray and Cantwell also complained Miller’s confirmation hearing was a sham because it was scheduled during a Senate recess and only two Republican senators attended.

Last summer, the White House withdrew a similar nomination of Assistant US Attorney for Oregon Ryan Bounds over objections by Oregon’s Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. The Bounds’ nomination to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was withdrawn after Republican Senators Tim Scott and Marco Rubio refused to vote for his confirmation. 

Placing conservatives on federal courts, especially the liberal-leaning 23-judge Ninth Circuit, has been a political goal of President Trump’s administration. Trump has often complained about unfriendly, liberal and “Obama” judges that have imposed legal impediments to his policy initiatives such as a Muslim travel ban and family separation on the US-Mexican border.

Ironically, Republican senators used the “blue-slip” prerogative to veto Obama judicial nominees. Under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate rules on judicial appointments were changed to allow simple majorities, instead of the previous 60-vote threshold, to confirm federal judges. Ignoring the absence of “blue slips” is another step down a slippery path of politicizing federal judicial confirmations.

Murray called the confirmation of Miller a “dangerous first.” Cantwell said it set a “damaging precedent.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told The Washington Post, “It is regrettable and likely will result in more ideological nominees who don’t reflect the values of their home states. It’s hard to not see this action coming back to bite Republicans when they’re no longer in power in the Senate.”

On the Senate floor, Murray charged, “Abandoning the blue slip process and instead, bending to the will of a president who has demonstrated time and time again his ignorance and disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law is a mistake.” She noted Miller’s confirmation hearing included less than five minutes of questioning – “less questioning for a lifetime appointment than most students face for a book report.” 

According to Roll Call, more nominees are in the wings that lack endorsement by home-state senators in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. “I think it’s going to be very hard for folks who allowed the blue slip to evaporate to complain if wonderful New York judges start getting appointed into South Carolina, or Nebraska, or Louisiana or other places, because you’ve disarmed the one thing that gives you the ability to do something about that,” Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Roll Call.

McConnell praised Miller, who holds undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Chicago. During his abbreviated confirmation hearing, Miller said as a US solicitor general he has argued a case before the Supreme Court defending tribal lands. Subsequently in private practice, he said he represented a client that opposed tribal interests. He described his previous roles as an advocate “not to advance my own views but to advance my client’s views.”  

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said the blue slip tradition is more of a courtesy than a veto. Graham did say it was his intention to retain the blue slip process for US District Court judicial appointments.

 

NW Delegation Gains Clout

The congressional delegates from the Pacific Northwest, though largely Democrats such as freshly reelected Senator Jeff Merkley, hold key positions in the 114th Congress. 

The congressional delegates from the Pacific Northwest, though largely Democrats such as freshly reelected Senator Jeff Merkley, hold key positions in the 114th Congress. 

Elections bring change and the biggest change after last year's election was the demotion of Senate Democrats to the minority. Here is a quick look at how the Pacific Northwest delegation stacks up in the just convened 114th Congress:

Senator Patty Murray has been given immense responsibility by her Democratic Caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges. In the 114th Congress, Murray takes on possibly her most challenging assignment. She gave up her chairmanship of both the full Budget Committee and Transportation/Housing Appropriations Subcommittee to take over the most powerful domestic discretionary issue, health care. Murray will now be the lead authorizer and appropriator on health care, education and workforce development. She is the Ranking Member of the Labor, Health, Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee and the full Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue as the lead Democrat on the powerful Finance Committee.  Even in the minority, Wyden will wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing a transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee in the last Congress, was recently selected to be the Ranking Member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Merkley is the beneficiary of a number of retirements and departing colleagues on the Appropriations Committee and is probably overjoyed to start his second term as the lead Democrat on the subcommittee. Agriculture is huge in Oregon, including the exploding wine industry, and Merkley will be well positioned to promote research and development of key agricultural products. Since coming to Congress, Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of the Republican minority. He led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause now that Democrats are in the minority.

Senator Maria Cantwell will serve as the lead Democrat on the Small Business Committee and remain a member of the Finance and Commerce committees. She will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through Washington State.  Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing. 

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his subcommittee chairmanship of Communications and Technology where he will lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. Walden is widely praised for giving House Republicans the biggest majority since 1931. Speaker John Boehner and Walden are good friends and the Speaker is quick to give the Oregon Republican credit for the 2014 rout.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments.  The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and won a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member. She wasn't able to lock down a gavel on a Subcommittee this Congress, but she will continue to accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will find ways to elevate the Congresswoman’s public profile as a rising leader in the party. She was featured this week in the GOP's 10 Questions series. You can find the link here.

Congressman Peter DeFazio surrendered his leading role as Ranking Member of the House Resources Committee in favor of taking over as the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move this Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio will have a unique opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill. One surprise the Oregon Democrat didn't expect last week was receiving a vote for Speaker of the House. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a close friend of DeFazio's and a fellow Democratic member of the T&I Committee, shocked everyone when he impulsively shouted out DeFazio's name. DeFazio quickly distanced himself from the situation and said he had no idea Lipinski would do it.  Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi lost the vote of three other Democrats while Boehner lost 25 of his fellow Republicans. If Boehner had lost 29 votes, it would have been a long day.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued sustainable investment, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program. 

Congressman Kurt Schrader secured an impressive victory on Friday and is now a member of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. Schrader said he wanted to use the new committee position to address health care issues that plagued the Cover Oregon website, focus more attention on renewable energy and reduce overly burdensome government interference in the marketplace.  Because of the A-level assignment, Schrader has to leave his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees.  It's likely Schrader, a moderate with an independent streak, received the coveted prize because a couple fellow Blue Dog Democrats on the Committee lost their seats.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici will keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her Ranking Member position on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate. 

Congressman Denny Heck will continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda. Heck was just named as chair of the DCCC Recruitment Committee, where he will work with Democratic candidates from around the country to try and rebuild the party. Heck is facing an uphill battle as the Democrats took a beating in 2014. To retake the majority, Democrats need to win a net of 30 seats. It's not impossible. In the 2016 presidential election, 26 House Republicans will occupy districts that President Obama won in 2012. Freshmen Members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck did. Recognizing the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district, Heck made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to Heck's ability to navigate the legislative process.

NW Delegation Continues to Move On Up

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

Senator Patty Murray is just one of many NW congressional delegates growing in influence on the national political scene.

While there may be a lack of close, competitive federal races in the Pacific Northwest, there is something to keep an eye on. 

The increasing seniority of Members of Congress from Oregon and Washington will continue to grow in the next Congress and the region’s influence may be nearing an all-time high. Here is a quick snapshot of the opportunities facing our region’s most influential policymakers.

Senator Patty Murray's rise to power is one of the most underreported stories in politics. Murray has been given immense responsibilities by her Democratic caucus, including co-chairing the Super Committee, heading the DSCC and chairing the Veterans Committee and the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee. Murray and GOP Budget Chairman Paul Ryan crafted the budget compromise that avoided deep domestic spending cuts and set a framework for a bipartisan roadmap to address longer-term challenges.

Because of Senator Tom Harkin's (D-IA) retirement, Murray could take over as chair or ranking member on the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, which is responsible for the largest domestic spending bill by far and funds the Department of Health and Human Services, Education and Labor. Murray would have to give up her top spot on the Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, but the opportunity will likely be too good to pass up.

Senator Ron Wyden will continue to lead the powerful Finance Committee as chair if Democrats stay in power or ranking member if the GOP controls the Senate. Even if he is in the minority, Wyden will continue to wield significant power on the tax writing committee in a year when tax reform may finally percolate to the surface.  The Committee also will have a significant role in financing the transportation reauthorization bill, crafting a Trade Promotion Authority bill, addressing online sales tax and passing a host of tax extenders.

Senator Jeff Merkley, who joined the Appropriations Committee this past Congress, could ascend to become an Appropriations subcommittee chair or ranking member in the next Congress. Because five or six senior Democratic appropriators are either retiring or will lose their races, Merkley could be catapulted to one of the more senior members of the Appropriations Committee. As a member of the Banking Committee, Merkley has championed banking reform measures to ensure financial institutions are held accountable for bad decisions and also tried to separate the banking and investment arms of financial institutions. Merkley has been frustrated with the obstructionist tactics of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and has led the fight for filibuster reform. It will be interesting to see if Merkley continues to champion the cause should Democrats lose control of the Senate. There will be plenty of fellow Democrats who will want to employ the filibuster as often as it was used against them.

Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Small Business Committee and member of the Finance and Commerce committees, will continue to advocate for domestic trade, access to capital for small businesses and renewable energy. Cantwell has shown a keen interest and is well positioned to address the booming oil-by-train shipments that are flowing through the Northwest. Cantwell also will play a key role in the transportation reauthorization bill as she fights to fund freight corridors to facilitate trade and manufacturing.

Congressman Greg Walden will maintain his position on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee and his chairmanship of Communications and Technology Subcommittee where he will continue to lead discussions surrounding the broadband spectrum and innovative communication technologies to drive the economy. Walden also will continue to lead the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the political arm of the Republican Party devoted to maintaining and increasing the GOP majority in the House. There has been some speculation that a few fellow GOPers are vying for the position, largely due to the NRCC’s low fundraising numbers. However, Walden has friends in high places, namely Speaker John Boehner, and it’s likely the GOP will pick up nearly a dozen seats this election, cementing his tenure for another two years. Boehner is quoted saying that Walden is working “tirelessly” on behalf of Republican candidates and that he is a “big reason” the GOP has the opportunity to increase its majority.

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has shot up like a rocket in terms of congressional influence and committee assignments. The powerful Appropriations Committee is typically reserved for seasoned members of Congress, but Herrera Beutler fought for and received a coveted spot on the committee as a sophomore member of Congress. It’s unlikely she will be able to chair an Appropriations subcommittee, but she will accrue seniority. Congressional leaders will continue to find ways to elevate her public profile as a rising leader in the party.

Congressman Peter DeFazio could face an interesting choice after the election. DeFazio is the ranking member of the House Resources Committee, an important committee for the Congressman’s district that has a wide swath of federal lands. However, it’s likely Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV), the lead Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will lose his House seat in the upcoming election. DeFazio would be next in line to take over the top transportation post. With the likelihood of a transportation reauthorization bill set to move in the next Congress (the current bill expires in May), DeFazio would have an opportunity to shape the massive transportation bill if he were to take up the mantle for Democrats on the Transportation Committee. However, under Democratic Caucus rules, you can’t lead two committees, so DeFazio would have to make a choice between Resources and Transportation. Heading the Transportation Committee may be an opportunity the Congressman can’t pass up.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, as a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, will be one to watch as Congress tackles comprehensive tax reform. Blumenauer is expected to drive continued investment in sustainable, green energy and look for ways to integrate these concepts into the tax code. As Congress addresses transportation reauthorization, look for Blumenauer to advocate for a gas tax increase and push for piloting a vehicle-miles-travelled program.

Congressman Kurt Schrader is expected to maintain his posts on the House Agriculture, Budget and Small Business committees. On these committees, Schrader will play a role in the continued debate over the national debt and remain influential over USDA and rural development policy. Schrader’s position on the Agriculture Committee will be critical as he works with fellow delegation members DeFazio and Walden to advocate for a responsible solution to the O&C lands issue.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, a rising leader in the Democratic Party, will likely continue to serve on the House Education and Workforce Committee and influence policy decisions through her Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training. Bonamici is also safe to keep her position on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, including her ranking member status on the Subcommittee on Environment. Here, she will be considering issues related to the EPA, environmental regulations and aspects of the broader climate change debate.

Congressman Denny Heck is seeking his second term in the House. As freshman, members of Congress typically focus squarely on the needs of their districts and that is what Heck has done. Heck recognizes the significant impact of Joint Base Lewis McCord on his district and has made military housing, veterans care and transportation infrastructure his top priorities. Heck is also a consummate legislator. Even as a freshman, he was successful in passing a bill that addresses underwater mortgages by giving additional flexibility to the Federal Housing Administration. Getting a bill passed in this dysfunctional Congress as a freshman in the minority is a testament to his ability to navigate the legislative process. Heck will likely continue to serve on the Financial Services Committee and promote his New Democrat agenda.

Northwest Delegation Gains Clout

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley lands a prize committee assignment, symbolizing the current Northwest congressional delegation's escalating clout in Congress.The Pacific Northwest congressional delegation climbed the ladder of seniority and power in Washington, DC this week, which could translate into more favorable attention to regional concerns.

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley cashed in on his support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by landing a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He will be the first Oregon congressional member to sit on Appropriations in either the House or Senate since the late Senator Mark Hatfield 15 years ago.

In the arcane, playground rules of Congress, the Appropriations Committee is where individual members go to "work some magic" on a particularly important local project to their district. When you join this committee, you suddenly have lots of friends and forgotten relatives.

Merkley isn't your "bring home the bacon at any cost" kind of guy. But he isn't a fool, either. He faces re-election and needs to buck up support in rural parts of the state. Senate Appropriations is the perfect platform to become everyone's best buddy.

Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell will assume the gavel of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes wrote that Cantwell's ascension to the chair of this committee vindicates the efforts by Washington Indian tribes to defeat former Senator Slade Gorton and elect Cantwell. They have gone from someone they despised to a committee chair they trust.

$6 Billion Buys Status Quo

Despite $6 billion spent in federal election campaigns, the political landscape in Washington, D.C. remains virtually unchanged — basically the same cast, plot and fiscal cliff.

President Obama's decisive electoral college victory, a fortified Democratic majority in the Senate and a return GOP majority in the House set the stage for a dramatic few weeks before the January 2 deadline when tax cuts expire and drastic spending cuts go into effect. 

The drama may prove anti-climatic, as some observers predict the lame-duck Congress will punt the ball to itself by approving short-term extensions of tax cuts and current spending levels – the equivalent of driving to the cliff, but at a slower speed.

Meanwhile, the election produced some positive outcomes for the Northwest congressional delegation:

  • Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash, who wasn't even on the ballot, may have scored the biggest victory by keeping Senate Democrats in the majority, a prospect that seemed dim just six months ago. Murray will retain her chairmanship of the Senate Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee and assume the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee, both formidable perches to influence economic and job-stimulus policy.

  • Senator Ron Wyden, D-OR, is slated to become chairman of Senate Energy and Natural Resources, the first chair since 1987 from a non-oil producing state. He can be expected to cheerlead for domestic energy production and use, while continuing to oppose exporting liquefied natural gas. Wyden also sits on Senate Finance, which will be involved in federal tax reform, something he has championed.