Reporting from Honolulu and Washington — President Obama used his executive power Wednesday to overcome what the White House called obstruction by Senate Republicans, announcing six recess appointments, including the first American ambassador to Syria in five years.
The appointments came amid deep White House frustration over the slow pace of Senate confirmations. A memo issued by the White House on Wednesday said that 79 of Obama's nominations were pending in the Senate when the lame-duck session ended.
The six nominees appointed have been waiting a total of 888 days to start their respective jobs, the White House said.
"All administrations face delays in getting some of their nominees confirmed, but the extent of Republican obstruction of Obama nominees is unprecedented," a White House official said in a statement.
The appointments fill a total of four ambassadorships, including Robert Stephen Ford as the envoy to Syria. Obama also appointed James Cole as deputy attorney general and William J. Boarman to the more obscure post of public printer of the United States, who heads the Government Printing Office.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) has objected to the appointment of Cole. In a statement Wednesday, Chambliss said, "It is always better for controversial nominees such as this one to go through the proper channels."
Chambliss is concerned about public comments Cole has made about prosecuting suspected terrorists in criminal courts, his office said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) welcomed Cole's appointment.
"The delays in considering his nomination were unnecessary and wrong. I am glad that he will now finally begin this important work to protect the American people," Leahy said in a statement.
In making the recess appointments, Obama seems to be acknowledging that winning Senate confirmation will only get tougher.
When Congress reconvenes next week, Democrats will continue to hold a majority in the Senate. But the party will control 53 seats instead of the 59 they controlled for much of the last year. Two independents caucus with the Democrats.
Presidents can circumvent the requirement to get Senate approval of nominations if Congress is in recess. The tactic has been used by presidents of both parties to appoint more controversial nominees.
Obama named Ford as ambassador to Syria in February, seeking to fill the post for the first time since President George W. Bush pulled his appointee after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. At the time Obama announced his choice, the White House said the decision represented the president's "commitment to use engagement to advance U.S. interests by improving communication with the Syrian government and people."
Obama has long complained about what he describes as Republican attempts to derail the confirmation process.
In February, he made a rare appearance in the White House press room to voice his frustration with the slow pace of Senate confirmations. He warned that he would use his power to make recess appointments unless he received more cooperation.
The following month, Obama made good on the threat. He infuriated pro-business groups and many Senate Republicans with a batch of 15 recess appointments, one of whom was labor lawyer Craig Becker.
Becker, who was general counsel to the Service Employees International Union, was named to the National Labor Relations Board, which settles disputes between labor and management. SEIU is a close political ally of Obama.
Becker's appointment had been held up by a Senate filibuster. Some lawmakers contended that his ties to organized labor made him a poor choice for the board.
As a recess appointee, Becker may serve until the end of the Senate session, which runs through 2011.
In July, Obama again bypassed the Senate to install a controversial nominee, using a recess appointment to install Dr. Donald Berwick to run the Medicare and Medicaid system. Republicans had objected to statements from Berwick praising the British national healthcare system.
None of Wednesday's appointments were used to help clear a backlog in judicial picks. When the 111th Congress adjourned last week, 19 judicial nominees that had been reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee were left pending and returned to the president.
A committee spokesman says that in the first Congress of Bush's first term, every nominee faced an up-or-down vote, and 100 District and Circuit Court judicial nominations were confirmed. Only 60 were confirmed with a Democratic majority for Obama.
Senate Democrats have tried to beat back filibusters and force a confirmation vote 21 times during Obama's presidency. At a comparable point under Bush, Republicans had tried to force a confirmation vote just four times, the White House said.
Officials also announced that Obama, who has been in Hawaii for a week with his family, will extend his trip by one day and return to Washington on Jan. 4.
Memoli reported from Honolulu and Times staff writer Nicholas from Washington.