McConnell plots the Republican future — and his own

Let House Democrats focus on investigating President Donald Trump, says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s focusing on the longer game by pushing the Senate to confirm as many of Trump’s judicial nominees as it can.

The Kentucky Republican has already set a furious confirmation pace, assuring the nation’s federal courts will have a strong conservative tilt for years and probably decades to come.

And so, as Democrats Wednesday celebrated winning the House and causing new trouble for Trump, McConnellquietly reminded everyone that he will preside over a Republican Senate with an eye to keeping the GOP and its ideology in play for a long time.

“I think we’ll have probably more time for nominations in the next Congress than we’ve had in this one, because the areas of legislative agreement will be more limited between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate,” McConnell told a Washington news conference. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding time to do nominations.”

McConnell has already led the Senate to confirm two Supreme Court appointments, 29 circuit appeals judges — the courts directly below the Supreme Court — and 53 district court judges.

The average age of Trump’s circuit court nominees is 49, relatively young for judges and ensuring the nominees’ lifetime appointments will last even longer

“We intend to keep confirming as many as we possibly can for as long as we’re in a position to do it,” McConnell said.

There are still 11 vacancies for appeals court judges, with three nominees pending. Six of those vacancies and all three nominees are for seats on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, an expansive court that covers much of the Western United States and has stymied some of Trump’s executive orders.

There are 111 vacancies on district courts around the country with 48 nominees pending.

Republicans appear poised to expand their 51-49 majority in the next Congress, possibly by as many as three seats. McConnell allies said the expanded Republican presence makes it much easier for nominees to be confirmed.

“The most immediate effect will be confirmations,” said Billy Piper, a former chief of staff to McConnell. “Even though the (Republican) conference has been largely supportive, leadership was still a slave to attendance and didn’t have the room to lose a single vote.”

The Senate could be looking at confirming an unusually large number of Trump nominees. for other positions. Hours after polls closed, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked to submit his resignation and more Cabinet departures are expected.

McConnell prefers to move confirmations with support from both parties, but having more Senate Republicans will give him a bit of a cushion if that doesn’t happen, said Josh Holmes, a former top aide to McConnell.

“From a practical standpoint, he’s been walking a vote tightrope for the better part of two years with no margin of error,” said Holmes. Securing 51 votes for confirmation or personnel “is a real highwire act,” he said. “So getting a couple extra votes eases the burden.”

The election also increased the number of Republican woman senators, which Holmes said has been a McConnell concern. Former Rep. Marsha Blackburn was elected in Tennessee, and Rep. Martha McSally was locked in a too-close-to-call election in Arizona.

Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, have accused McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, of “breaking every norm to stack the courts with young, ideological nominees.”

Among Democrats’ complaints are that Trump is not honoring the blue-slip process, when the home-state senators of a possible judicial nominee indicate their support before a nomination is announced.

Democrats are also troubled about Republicans are holding confirmation hearings while the Senate is not in session.. The GOP held two such sessions last month.

“Before last week, the judiciary committee had never held a nominations hearing during an extended recess without the minority’s consent,” Feinstein said in a statement in late October. “In fact, the Judiciary Committee is the only committee holding hearings before the election.”

The three circuit court nominees currently pending are all from California for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and neither Feinstein nor Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, returned blue slips for any of the nominees.

Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, a progressive legal organization, said stopping McConnell’s priorities would now have to wait until 2020, when a Democratic president or Senate majority could be elected. About all Democrats can do right now is try to delay judicial appointments.

“It wouldn’t be such an issue if this could just swing back under a Democratic president or Senate, but that’s not the case,” said Fredrickson. “These are lifetime appointments.”

In addition to helping McConnell advance one of his chief priorities, Piper said the Republican Senate advantage puts McConnell in a sweet spot for his 2020 re-election effort.

So does the Tuesday win by Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, who fought off a strong challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath. Had she won, McGrath would have instantly become a potentially strong challenger to McConnell.

“Anyone who is a Democrat in Kentucky who was considering running was reminded that Kentucky is a center-right state,” Piper said. “No matter how well they’ve done in the cities, it’s still difficult for a Democrat to win statewide office.”

There was chatter as recently as six months ago about a challenge to McConnell from his right, but Tuesday’s Senate results likely closes that off.

“If you were interested in challenging him as a Republican, you are also taking on the task of challenging the president and to date that has been a losing proposition and I expect it would be in 2020 as well,” Piper said. “What does the president like more than anything else? Winning. And the leader and the Republican Senate have been able to hand him a lot of victories.”

That wasn’t the case as recently as a year ago. Trump chastised McConnell after the Senate effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act collapsed, tweeting at one point that McConnell needed to “get back to work.”

They’ve since forged a productive relationship, with McConnell most recently helping Trump get his second Supreme Court nomination confirmed.

And Holmes maintained McConnell has created an “absolute juggernaut” of a political organization with the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned political action committee, spending $123.4 million this cycle.

Asked at his Wednesday press conference if he expected Trump’s endorsement for his 2020 re-election, McConnell chuckled: “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby