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Brian Friel

The Senate generally hates to cede authority to the executive branch, so a plan to surrender the chamber’s advice and consent role for low-level presidential appointments is proving a difficult sell.

It started out smoothly. The bipartisan proposal originated in the Senate, and leaders made it part of a bill backers said would spare senators from confirming nominees to positions well out of the line of fire, such as assistant secretary of Agriculture for congressional relations or director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Some debate and resistance was expected when the Senate took up the bill (S 679) that would allow the president to appoint 203 officials without Senate confirmation, but not enough to threaten the spirit of the measure.

The bill would relinquish Senate confirmation power over appointees to 14 percent of the 1,400 executive branch positions now requiring Senate action. Only 85 are full-time jobs, the rest being appointments to boards.

But senators have recently filed a flurry of amendments that would yank 58 of those positions back under Senate control.

Those senators say they want to prevent people they consider unqualified from filling government positions, or that they want to retain effective oversight of agencies. But others are simply reluctant to give up the opportunity that confirmations provide senators to exert leverage over the executive branch.

“In a sense, you’re giving up potential hostages when you reduce the number of confirmable appointees,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

The amendments target many of the full-time positions that the bill would free from the confirmation process. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wants the Senate to continue passing judgment on appointments to the posts of U.S. treasurer and the director of the U.S. Mint. Indian Affairs Chairman Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, is not ready to give up authority over who heads the Administration for Native Americans at the Health and Human Services Department.

The second thoughts about streamlining the appointment process are coming from both sides of the aisle. The chairmen and top Republicans on the Armed Services and Finance committees, for example, have joined forces to demand that the Senate continue to confirm nominees to several positions under their jurisdictions.

Pressing back against the reluctant senators are others who call the proposal a modest step to ease the confirmation gantlet nominees must run. “There are some members, Democratic and Republican, who want to take a step back the other way,” said Delaware Democrat Thomas R. Carper . “What I want to make sure we do is not allow that to happen without a very good reason.”

But Ohio Republican Rob Portman — who earlier in his career was confirmed as U.S. trade representative and Office of Management and Budget director — argues that many nominees want the prestige that comes with Senate confirmation.

Portman wants to continue Senate confirmation of 21 financial management positions covered by the bill.

“Senate confirmation is the coin of the realm for sitting at the same table as other Senate-confirmed officers,” Light said.

Proponents are expected to beat back at least some of the amendments and pass the bill. That will give the House a rare voice in confirmation matters, since there will be no change in the process unless the legislation can get through that chamber.