It might take the “nuclear option” to get the U.S. Senate to confirm the nomination of Texas Tech University Professor Mindy Brashears as the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety.

The post, the top food safety job in the federal government, has been vacant for more than five years.

President Donald J. Trump nominated Brashears for the position May 4, 2018, and the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry unanimously recommended approval of her confirmation by the full Senate on Dec. 5.

But the 115th Congress expired without giving Brashears a floor vote and her nomination was returned to the president. She was not alone.   The clock ran out on 270 Trump nominees who did not get a confirmation vote.

Senate Democrats have kept Trump appointees from confirmation by demanding a full 30 hours of floor debate before a vote.   

The White House is expected to return Brashears nomination to the Senate as Senate Republicans are considering changing the rules so that debate before a confirmation vote would be limited to two or three hours in order clear the backlog. 

After meeting behind closed doors last week, Senate Republicans acknowledged they might for the third time use the so-called “nuclear option” to get the confirmation vote process moving again.

The “nuclear option” refers to the changing Senate rules by simple majority vote. Former Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid was first to use the option so a majority vote could close debate on non-Supreme Court judges and cabinet appointees. GOP Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell used it so the debate on Supreme Court justices could be cut off by a majority vote.

If the Republicans use the “nuclear option” to limit debate time before a confirmation vote on presidential nominees, it could end up benefiting a future Democratic president.

Brashears is a Professor of Food Safety and Food Microbiology and the Director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University.

At Texas Tech University, she focuses much of her research on improving food safety standards. Brashears’s work evaluates interventions in pre- and post-harvest environments and on the emergence of antimicrobial drug resistance in animal feeding systems and has resulted in the commercialization of a pre-harvest feed additive that can reduce E. coli and Salmonella in cattle.

Additionally, she leads international research teams to Mexico, Central America, and South America to set up sustainable agriculture systems in impoverished areas. Brashears is past-chair of the National Alliance for Food Safety and Security and of the U.S. Department of Agriculture multi-state research group.

Once her nomination is sent back to The Hill, the Senate is expected to assign it to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. It is unclear whether the Committee will require another confirmation hearing or just refresh its vote for confirmation.

Two other top USDA posts also remain vacant pending Senate action on held-over appointees. They are Scott Hutchins as Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education, and Economics (REE), otherwise known as USDA chief scientist; and Naomi Earp for Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

Hutchins is an expert in integrated field sciences for Cortera Agriscience and an adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska and previously served as president of the Entomological Society of America.

Earp is a retired career civil servant with more than 20 years of experience in federal equal opportunity policy, charge processing, complaint handling, and employment law.

She entered federal services as a GS-9 career employee and worked her way to the Senior Executive Service level prior to appointments as Chair and Vice Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush.

The three USDA jobs are among the 704 “key” government jobs requiring both a presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. During his first two years in the White House, President Trump gained Senate confirmation for 61.5 percent of his “key” appointees, according to a tracking project by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service.

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