WASHINGTON -- The Senate opened for 22 seconds yesterday, the first of two planned sessions each this week and next to keep President Bush from making so-called "recess appointments."
The "faux" sessions are part of a rare gambit by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Presidents use recess appointments when a nomination is in trouble in the Senate.
"It's unfortunate that we have to do this, but we couldn't run the risk of the administration ramming through some of their highly controversial appointments while we were in recess," said Jim Manley, the Democratic leader's press secretary.
Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, gaveled in the micro-session yesterday and promptly ended it.
The Constitution grants the president authority to fill high-level positions without the customary Senate confirmation whenever the Senate is in recess.
Historically, some recess appointments have eventually won the Senate's blessings, including President Theodore Roosevelt's decision in 1902 to name Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to the United States Supreme Court.
But many presidents - including Bush and former President Bill Clinton - have used that power to appoint judges and other officials who faced stiff opposition, and sometimes stalled nominations, on Capitol Hill.
This year, amid rumors that Bush might use the recess to appoint James Holsinger as U.S. surgeon general, Reid played the procedural card of keeping the Senate technically in session.
Holsinger, a professor from the University of Kentucky's College of Public Health, has been criticized by gay rights groups and public health experts for a paper he wrote 16 years ago that characterized gay sex as unnatural and unhealthy. At a Senate hearing in July, he denied any anti-gay bias. But Senate Democrats have refused to bring up Holsinger's nomination.
If Bush were able to use a recess appointment to install Holsinger as surgeon general, Holsinger would be able to remain in office until the end of Bush's term.
The practice of making recess appointments has long been controversial.
In 2005, Bush appointed John R. Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during a congressional recess, thereby circumventing a Democratic filibuster of Bolton's nomination and sending him to New York. Clinton angered Republicans with his recess appointment of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg, making Hormel the country's first openly gay ambassador.
But perhaps the most controversial recess appoint came this spring. Bush enraged Senate Democrats during Easter break by filling the vacant ambassadorship to Belgium with Sam Fox, who during the 2004 presidential campaign helped bankroll the controversial attacks by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth on the military record of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.
After that, Reid negotiated an agreement with the White House to avoid any appointments during the August break.
But now, with a two-week Thanksgiving recess looming, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement. Reid asked a few Democratic senators who plan to be close to the capital during the holidays - Webb, Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Jack Reed of Rhode Island - to gavel open and shut the Senate for two days each week.
The White House responded coolly to the majority leader's unusual move.
"Since he intends to bring the Senate in every three days, we encourage him to put that time to good use and schedule confirmation hearings for our nominees," spokesman Trey Bohn said Saturday.
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.