WASHINGTON — Circumventing Senate opposition, President Bush signed recess appointments Friday for conservatives Otto Reich as the chief U.S. diplomat in Latin America and Eugene Scalia as the top lawyer for the Labor Department.
The White House gave Congress formal notification of the long-discussed appointments and then announced the president's decision without comment.
Because Bush exercised his authority while Congress was in recess, Reich, a Cuban-American, and Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, will be allowed to serve until Congress recesses again at the end of the year.
Conservatives applauded Bush for bypassing the Senate.
Thomas L. Jipping, director of the Center for Law & Democracy, said that Senate Democrats played "vindictive partisan games" with the nominations, and so "the president is forced to use his recess appointment powers in situations that America's founders did not intend."
Democrats opposed to the pair called Bush's decision regrettable.
"I continue to believe that Mr. Scalia is not the right person for this important Labor Department position. His record and experience do not reflect a commitment to the rights of America's workers," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Christopher Dodd, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that refused to give Reich a hearing, issued a statement calling him a lame duck.
"There are many difficulties in the region (Latin America) and it is unfortunate that U.S. foreign policy in the region is being sacrificed for a narrow domestic political agenda," said Dodd, D-Conn.
Top presidential appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. The Senate's Democratic leaders refused to consider Scalia or Reich before the chamber adjourned last month until Jan. 23.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said Friday that he had repeatedly promised a vote of the full Senate on Scalia. "We also said it appeared that Mr. Scalia's record of hostility toward worker protections would have made his confirmation unlikely," said Daschle, D-S.D.
The Constitution gives the president the power during Senate recesses to install nominees, without Senate approval, until the end of the next session of Congress.
Scalia's nomination to Labor Department solicitor had squeaked by the Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee, which Kennedy chairs.
Unions lobbied intensely to defeat the Washington labor lawyer, in part for his opposition to Clinton-era ergonomics rules killed by Congress last spring that were aimed at reducing workplace injuries. Scalia criticized the regulations as "quackery" based on "junk science."
At his confirmation hearing, Scalia said he thought ergonomics-related injuries did exist but that the regulation issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year went too far.
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney called Scalia's recess appointment "a slap in the face of American workers . . . that simply underscores the Bush administration's lockstep allegiance to the corporate agenda of blocking needed worker protections."
Scalia becomes the Labor Department's top lawyer — and third highest-ranking officer — in charge of enforcing nearly federal labor laws and worker protections.
He would also provide Labor Secretary Elaine Chao with legal advice and guidance on virtually every initiative of the department in areas such as safety and health, minimum wage and pension security. Chao issued a statement saying she still hopes for Senate confirmation of Scalia so that he may serve for the entire remainder of the Bush administration.
As for Reich's appointment to be assistant secretary of state for Latin America, Daschle said that both Democrats and Republicans had raised questions about the nominee's record in government and the private sector.
Dodd and his allies consider the Cuban-American, who has close ties to conservative anti-Castro Cubans, to be unqualified for the post. But Secretary of State Colin Powell called Reich, a former ambassador to Venezuela, the most important among the State Department's unconfirmed nominees.
"He has done nothing — nothing at all — in his career in government that should be seen as disqualifying for this job," Powell said recently.
The Democrats' concerns over Reich focus on his lobbying activities as well as his leadership of the State Department's one-time Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean. The office — which Reich led from its inception in June 1983 until January 1986 — was accused of running an illegal, covert domestic propaganda effort against Nicaragua's Sandinista government and in favor of the Contra rebels.
Reich has denied any wrongdoing.