WASHINGTON ― Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday unilaterally forced a change in Senate rules to make it easier to confirm most of President Donald Trump’s nominees to lifetime court seats.
McConnell used the rarely invoked “nuclear option” to permanently reduce the amount of time that senators can debate most nominees ― district court judges and lower-level executive nominees ― from 30 hours to two. The change does not apply to Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court nominees or circuit court nominees.
All but two Republicans, Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine), voted to make the change. Every Democrat opposed it. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) missed the vote.
The final vote was 48-51. We’ll spare you the procedural talk, but the vote was technically to overrule the chair on allowing 30 hours of debate on these nominees, which is why the “no” votes changed the rule.
McConnell tried to make the change on Tuesday with a resolution but fell short of the 60 votes needed to move it forward. So on Wednesday, he took the more extreme and partisan approach of using the nuclear option, which requires only 51 votes to make a change.
Ahead of the vote, McConnell and other Republicans complained about Democrats delaying votes on Trump’s nominees and said it justified changing the rules ― the same rules they abused to deny Barack Obama votes on his judicial nominees for most of his presidency.
“Exemplary jurists with broad bipartisan support [are] all subjected to weeks if not months and months of pointless delays and the pointless cloture votes,” declared McConnell, who led Republicans in exhausting those rules to delay even their own judicial nominees under Obama, only to ultimately confirm them anyway.
“It’s time to return this body to a more normal and reasonable process ... no matter which party controls the White House,” continued McConnell, who was so Machiavellian about denying Obama the ability to confirm his judicial nominees that he prevented him from filling a Supreme Court seat and fueled a vacancy crisis on the nation’s federal courts.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chaired the Judiciary Committee when Obama was president, downplayed the number of times Republicans denied votes to his court picks.
“One Supreme Court judge and two circuit judges,” said Grassley, who apparently does not remember that Trump inherited more than 100 court vacancies when he became president because of all the judicial nominees Republicans blocked under Obama.
Democrats couldn’t do much but watch Republicans plow ahead with the new rule on Wednesday.
“This is a very sad day for the Senate,” said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Two hours for a lifetime appointment with huge influence on people’s lives is unacceptable. It’s ridiculous. It’s a mockery of how this institution should work.”
Some were struck by how much McConnell has changed the way the Senate functions in order to get his way.
The reason McConnell wants to make it easier to confirm Trump’s district judges is because he’s already made it easier to confirm all of Trump’s other judicial nominees. He used the nuclear option to lower the vote threshold for confirming Trump’s Supreme Court picks from 60 to a simple majority. He’s endorsed repeated violations of the “blue slip” rule for circuit court nominees, a Senate tradition of moving forward with a judicial nominee only after both home-state senators sign off on it.
It’s all part of the Republican leader’s plan to use Trump’s presidency to put piles of young, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, anti-voting rights ideologues into lifetime federal court seats before Trump is up for re-election in 2020.
“This isn’t a sad day,” McConnell said. “This is a glad day.”
Until now, Republicans have focused on confirming lots of judges to circuit courts because these courts often have the last word in federal cases. The Supreme Court only hears about 100 to 150 appeals from the more than 7,000 cases that come before the nation’s 13 circuit courts each year.
Republicans have already confirmed 37 of Trump’s circuit judges, more than any other president has gotten by this point in his first term. It’s so many that 1 in 5 seats on circuit courts are now filled by a judge nominated by Trump.
They’ve been so hasty in moving Trump’s circuit court nominees that they confirmed some who received an abysmal and rare “not qualified” rating by the American Bar Association. And some of Trump’s judicial picks have been so poorly vetted that a handful of Republicans tanked their nominations after reviewing their records during, yes, the 30 hours of debate time they’d been allotted.
Now that McConnell is turning his attention to district courts, he’s got a whopping 129 vacancies to work with. Thanks to the new rule change, Republicans could conceivably fill most of those court seats in Trump’s first term, leaving few to fill after 2020, when a Democrat may be in the White House.
“Mitch McConnell and the GOP just keep eviscerating long-standing customs that are the glue that binds the institution,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and expert on judicial nominations. “Mike Lee has it right. Forget the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Welcome to the House of Representatives.”
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.