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US Senate goes ‘nuclear’ on delayed nominations

The US Senate voted today to forbid a tactic that has delayed or blocked consideration of many of President Barack Obama’s nominees, including several at key science agencies.

Under the Senate’s old rules, the tactic, known as a filibuster, raised the bar to approve a nomination from a simple majority (51 votes in the 100-member Senate) to 60 votes, a mark that is often difficult to reach. After today’s vote, approval of most nominations will require only a simple majority. The change was so controversial that passing it became known as the ‘nuclear option’. (Candidates for the Supreme Court can still be filibustered.)

The decision could allow lawmakers to quickly fill science posts that have been open for months, including the top jobs at the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Geological Survey. Filibuster threats delayed the recent confirmation of Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy for more than four months, and of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for roughly two months.

Notable open positions at US science agencies are listed below.

Department of Energy:

  • Undersecretary for Science, open since 18 November 2011. On 18 November, Obama nominated Franklin Orr, director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University in California, for the job.
  • Director of the Office of Science, open since 12 April. On 18 November, Obama nominated Marc Kastner, dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, for the job.


  • Deputy administrator, open since 6 September. No one has been nominated to fill the post.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

  • Administrator, open since 28 February. On 2 August, Obama nominated the agency’s acting administrator, former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, to officially take the job.
  • Chief scientist. The position was eliminated by President George W. Bush, but Obama has attempted to revive it. The White House nominated Scott Doney, a geochemist at the Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography in Massachusetts, in January 2010 but withdrew its request in January 2012 in the face of a long-standing filibuster threat.

National Science Foundation

US Geological Survey

  • Director, open since 15 February. No one has been nominated to fill the post.



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