‘It doesn’t reflect on the president.’ Senate poised to cut debate on Trump nominees

President Donald Trump’s nominees for federal judgeships will be able to sail through the Senate with minimal debate time as Senate Republicans prepare to remake the the body’s rules next week.

Democrats say it’s an effort to pack the courts and to prevent scrutiny of the president’s nominees. But Republicans say it’s a necessary move in the face of hundreds of vacancies in the federal court system and in federal agencies.

“If this rule was dated, ‘We’ll do this January 20, 2021,’ virtually every Democrat would vote for this,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a co-sponsor of the resolution to cut down on debate time.

The current Senate rules empower the minority party to require 30-hour debates on the president’s nominees, a privilege Democrats exercised 128 times during Trump’s first two years in office. Republicans say this slows down both the confirmation process and the Senate’s ability to work on other legislation.

“The abuse of the rules just does not allow us to get to other work and or fill the jobs that the president is supposed to be able to fill by congressional consent,” Blunt told reporters Thursday.

The proposed rule change would reduce the amount of required debate time from 30 hours to two for the president’s nominees to federal district courts and a host of federal agency positions. Nominees for the Supreme Court, federal appellate courts, Cabinet-level positions and high-level boards, such as the Federal Reserve, would still face a full 30 hours of debate time.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, announced Thursday that the Senate will proceed with a vote on the proposal next week, a move that rankled Democrats.

“Sen. McConnell seemingly wants his legacy to be a new judiciary in the image of the far right Republican. Putting nominations on a fast track conveyor belt is not only a disservice to the Senate but to our Democracy,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

“I’m really not thinking about this politics. As a litigator who’s spent most of his career in the courts it’s a sad day for America.”

McConnell called the proposed rule change “a reform that every member should embrace— when their party controls the White House and when it does not control the White House.”

Heidi Hess, the co-director of the national progressive group CREDO Action, said if the change moves forward that voters would remember how Republicans “manipulated Senate rules and precedent to put unqualified sycophants into key positions in government and stack the courts in favor of big business and billionaires and against working people, women and our planet.”

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, emphasized that senators aren’t squaring off rhetorically on the Senate floor for the full 30 hours.

“It’s 30 hours of open sitting on the floor,” Hawley said. “It’s not as if as we’ve got serious grievances we need to hear. We don’t. Once we’ve gotten through that and we get to the vote a lot of these votes are lopsided… A lot of times these are consensus nominees.”

McConnell’s decision to schedule a vote will put pressure on Democrats to present a counter offer, a possibility that Blunt said became more likely after Republicans showed they were willing to move forward with the rule change on their own.

Even GOP moderates, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, are open to supporting the resolution.

“There’s no doubts the Democrats have needlessly obstructed the confirmation of countless nominees who have gone on to be confirmed by overwhelming margins,” said Collins, who said she was still weighing how to vote on the measure.

Trump bemoaned the vacancies during his State of the Union address earlier this year.

There are currently 128 openings in federal district courts— nearly 20 percent of the total district court seats— but 72 of those positions are vacant because the president has yet to nominate a candidate.

There are currently 41 judicial nominees, who would be affected by the rule change, who have already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That includes Stephen Clark, who Trump has nominated for Eastern District Court of Missouri

On top of the judicial nominees, there are 139 federal agency nominees awaiting Senate floor votes.

“It doesn’t reflect on the president at all,” Blunt said when asked if the slow pace of confirmations said anything about Trump or his nominees.

“These are nominees who when they get voted on often get over 90 votes. I’ve got some percentages on this and they’re very high. So it’s not a problem with the nominees,” he said. “It’s not even an interest in having a debate because the 30 hours of debate often produces less than 10 minutes of debate. It’s just a stall tactic to keep us from doing other things.”

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.