It's common knowledge that it takes a majority vote in the Senate to approve legislation or nominations, and that 60 votes are necessary to end a filibuster. Most citizens would be surprised, however, to learn that sometimes the magic number for blocking action is neither 51 nor 41 but one. Under long-standing practice, a single senator can put a "hold" on a bill or nomination for any reason at all. Worse, holds are often anonymous.
On Thursday, the Senate considered an amendment that would shine additional light on the holds process. Sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), it would strengthen an existing, and much-ignored, 2007 disclosure law by reducing from six to two days the period between the imposition of a hold and the identification in the Congressional Record of the senator requesting it. Another change would apply disclosure requirements to holds placed on legislation before it reaches the Senate floor. Unfortunately, the proposal was withdrawn after Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) attached a secondary amendment mandating the completion within a year of a 700-mile security fence along the Mexican border.
Technically, a hold is an arrangement in which a senator threatens to prevent the unanimous consent needed to bring legislation or a nomination expeditiously to the floor. The abuse of holds has frustrated President Obama's efforts to staff his administration and lighten the workload of the federal courts. Earlier this year, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) placed holds on some 70 of Obama's nominations to get the administration's attention on two issues affecting his state.