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Dorr: Senate to blame in loss of Helms

Nov. 19, 2013 - 11:03AM   |  
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Lt. Gen. Susan Helms’ request to retire means a loss to everyone in the Air Force.

It’s also a blemish on the U.S. Senate.

When fast-rising leader Helms was nominated earlier this year to be vice commander of Air Force Space Command, confirmation by the Senate seemed a foregone conclusion.

To prevent any president from wielding unbridled power, the Constitution requires the Senate to “advise and consent” on presidential nominations, including general officer appointments. The founders anticipated that 51 percent of senators would decide whether a nominee can take office.

But first, a nomination must reach the Senate floor. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., held up the Helms nomination in a dispute over sexual assault in the military.

As I wrote in my Sept. 9 column, I believe McCaskill is wrong in seeking to change the role of commanders in overseeing courts-martial.

But the question here is whether one senator, acting alone, should be able to block a nomination.

Under the current arrangement, even if 99 senators out of 100 had supported Helms, just one senator could have — and did —deny the nation Helms’ future services.

Another hold by one senator, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., in September halted the nomination of Deborah James to fill the long-vacant post of Air Force secretary.

The issue was whether the Air Force was candid about the future of its A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet.

In my view, Ayotte was wrong on the issue but the point here again is that this Senate procedure is wrong. Ayotte eventually lifted her hold, but the Senate still has not confirmed James.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says he will put a hold on all Obama appointees until the administration is more candid about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.

Graham says he wants testimony from five State Department survivors of the Benghazi attack. But one has already testified behind closed doors, and three more are already scheduled.

As a retired American diplomat who worked in consulates, I believe Graham is wrong on Benghazi.

But the point is that using a procedural gimmick in the Senate is not the way to resolve this issue.

Graham — who is conservative, but faces a challenge from the right in his state’s primary election next spring — singled out for holds the nominations of Jeh Johnson to be Department of Homeland Security secretary and Janet Yellen to be Federal Reserve chairman.

A vote on the Senate floor to deny a nomination to Helms, James, Johnson or Yellen would be exactly what the founders of this nation had in mind.

But allowing a single senator to hold up a nomination — and even to wreck a career, as McCaskill did with Helms — is just plain wrong.

There is no measuring how much we’ve lost by not having Helms. But it shouldn’t have happened this way.

The Senate needs to police itself.

____

Dorr, an Air Force veteran, is the author of “Mission to Tokyo.” Find him at http://robert.f.dorr@cox.net/.

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