WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2010— -- Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., had blocked more than 80 presidential nominations now before the Senate, but tonight he relented, saying he had simply been trying "to get the White House's attention" on two important national security issues related to his state.
Shelby had blocked the nominations by using a procedural tactic called a "hold," which allows individual senators to block votes on presidential nominations. But Shelby's spokesman, John Graffeo, says he will drop "most" of his holds.
Graffeo told ABC News that the purpose of placing the holds were to "get the White House's attention on two issues that are critical to our national security -- the Air Force's aerial refueling tanker acquisition and the FBI's Terrorist Device Analytical Center (TEDAC)." Both issues were unrelated to the nominations, and the latter regarded the Obama administration's decision not to move an FBI lab to Shelby's home state of Alabama.
"With that accomplished, Shelby has decided to release his holds on all but a few nominees directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition until the new Request for Proposal is issued," Graffeo said.
Currently there are more than 80 presidential nominations hanging in the balance, including the undersecretary of defense for military readiness and top officials at the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Shelby had opposed and blocked every pending presidential nomination.
Shelby's office defended the senator's decision to call attention to the tanker acquisition and the FBI facility, saying that neither was an "earmark."
"The Air Force tanker acquisition is not an "earmark" as has been reported; it is a competition to replace the Air Force's aging aerial refueling tanker fleet. Sen. Shelby is not seeking to determine the outcome of the competition; he is seeking to ensure an open, fair and transparent competition that delivers the best equipment to our men and women in uniform," Graffeo said.
"Nor is the TEDAC a so-called earmark; it is a facility specifically requested by the Department of Justice and the FBI. They need such a facility to forensically examine Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and elsewhere, including the device the Christmas Day bomber was wearing," said Graffeo. "Sen. Shelby is fully justified in his concern that the Obama administration is seeking to rescind funds already appropriated for this vital national security purpose."
President Obama Still Faces Stiff Republican Resistance
The statement came after news reports said Shelby had placed a blanket hold on all of the president's nominees.
While that Republican roadblock has been cleared, the president still faces many hurdles.
Republicans say they are against resuscitating the current Democratic-backed health care legislation passed in the House and Senate late last year.
On Saturday, President Obama invited Republicans and Democrats to a health care summit later this month.
"I think that what I want to do is to look at the Republican ideas that are out there and I want to be very specific: How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance markets so people with pre-existing conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don't have health insurance can get it? What are your ideas specifically?" Obama told CBS News' Katie Couric on Sunday.
GOP leaders welcomed the idea, but many say the Democrats' health care bill needs to be scrapped altogether before they start anew.
"The American people have overwhelmingly rejected both of the job-killing trillion-dollar government takeover of health care bills passed by the House and Senate," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. He added that the "best way to start on real, bipartisan reform would be to scrap those bills and focus on the kind of step-by-step improvements that will lower health care costs and expand access."
And the president faces stiff resistance on a number of other issues, including reducing the deficit and a new jobs bill. Recently, Republicans voted down a bipartisan-backed idea to create a deficit-cutting commission, including seven of the original co-sponsors of the bill, like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Last month, the president chided GOP House members for saying no for the sake of opposing his initiatives, then turning around and benefitting from them.
"A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects you voted against," he said.
But for now, the president is striking a more bipartisan-sounding tone.
"If Democrats and Republicans come together in a sensible way, put everything on the table, not trying to position themselves politically ahead of time, then there's no reason why we can't start putting in place some serious measures that will start driving the deficit down long-term," he said Sunday.
"The biggest thing, the most important thing that we can do on deficits is to get a health reform package passed."