WASHINGTON — Nearly two weeks ago, on C-SPAN, Sen. Tom Coburn had some harsh words for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, accused Reid of avoiding tough votes and said the leader “is keeping senators from having to be who they should be — men and women who are willing to stand up and take a position and defend it.”
Whether or not he was directly responding to those comments, Reid gave Coburn a chance on Monday to take a position and defend it. Coburn declined to take a position.
Reid, D-Nev., set up a vote to advance an Oklahoman nominated for a federal appeals court past a Republican blockade. There were other appeals court nominees, ones who had been awaiting action longer, but Reid chose to make U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert E. Bacharach the test of whether the GOP filibuster could be broken.
Reid quoted Coburn on the Senate floor Monday and noted that Coburn and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, had strongly endorsed Bacharach, a magistrate in Oklahoma City, for the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“If Senator Coburn and Senator Inhofe withdraw their support for this qualified nominee, blatant partisanship will be to blame,” Reid said.
“But don’t take my word for it. Senator Coburn said Bacharach is ‘an awfully good candidate caught in election-year politics.’”
Coburn and Inhofe didn’t vote against moving Bacharach’s nomination forward. But they didn’t vote in favor of it either. Both voted “present.” Only three Republicans — two from Maine and one from Massachusetts — backed Reid’s effort to advance Bacharach, and it failed by four votes.
A historian for the U.S. Senate Historical Office said Tuesday that voting “present,” essentially not taking a side, “doesn’t happen that much anymore but it used to be fairly common.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, she said, senators would vote “present” when they didn’t want to take a position on controversial issues or oppose their party.
Coburn has cast more than 2,400 votes in the Senate since 2005, but this may have been his first “present” vote. A spokeswoman said she could not find any other instances of Coburn voting “present.”
Inhofe has cast nearly 9,800 votes since being elected to the Senate in 1994; his office was unable to determine Tuesday whether the senator had voted “present” before.
Inhofe on Monday called the situation “awkward” and said he didn’t want to vote against Bacharach.
But he and Coburn, who conferred beforehand about the position they were in and how they would vote, decided not to buck their party.
Republicans are blocking the appeals court nominees because they’re hoping presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the White House in November and can replace President Barack Obama’s judicial picks with his own.
It’s a custom, very loosely defined and observed in various ways, used by both parties in presidential election years.
Democrats accused Republicans of playing political games by blocking Bacharach, and Republicans accused Democrats of playing political games by trying to advance his nomination.
Coburn called the vote “a stunt” and said Bacharach had been “a pawn.” He also said he had agreed in a closed-door meeting with fellow Republican senators that he would observe the custom of blocking appeals court nominees if some that were being blocked earlier this year were allowed to be confirmed; in a deal with Democrats, those nominees were confirmed several weeks ago.
Oklahoma City attorney Dan Webber, a former U.S. attorney who came to Washington in May to urge senators to confirm Bacharach and John Dowdell for a federal judgeship in Tulsa, said Tuesday he was “very disappointed” in the Oklahoma senators’ votes.
“It was clear that, one way or another, history was going to be made,” Webber said. “‘Yes’ votes from our senators would have made for positive history. The ‘present’ votes were effectively ‘no’ votes under the Senate rules and resulted in a new low for the Senate.
“I do not see how our senators can reconcile their prior statements of support with their actions Monday.”