Changing the Senate rules was one of several topics raised during a private Senate Republican retreat held at a conference center at Nationals Park on Thursday. While GOP senators discussed wanting support from Democrats to revise the rules — a process that would take 67 votes — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also raised the prospect of using the so-called “nuclear option” to change the rules unilaterally, according to two senators in attendance who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door retreat.
Using the nuclear option means the rules of the Senate are changed with just a simple majority of senators. It’s been considered a highly confrontational tactic in the past. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) deployed it in 2013 to eliminate the filibuster for nearly all executive and judicial nominations, while McConnell used it in 2017 to make the same change for Supreme Court candidates.
“It’s untenable,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who has spearheaded the rules change proposal in the Senate. “If the Senate is filled with only the executive calendar on the personnel side and we can’t even get to the legislative side, it bogs down a bogged-down process even more.”
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), returning from the retreat to votes Thursday afternoon, also confirmed Republicans discussed their options about how to speed up the confirmation process along the lines of a bipartisan agreement in 2013 that temporarily cut short the post-cloture debate time.
He said that no final decisions had been made but that Republicans intended to give Democrats a final chance on some of the upcoming nominees that will move out of committees.
If Democrats continue to string out every hour of parliamentary debate, Barrasso said, “then we’re going to have to look at other alternatives.” One of those would be the nuclear option, he said.
“The frustration level,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), “remains very high.”
Though an arcane topic, altering the chamber’s rules could have significant implications. The rules changes under consideration by Republicans would be permanent, meaning a future Democratic president could benefit from the revisions — or face the consequences of infuriated GOP senators.
“Half of my Democrat colleagues are now running for president,” Lankford said. “If one of them is elected in 2020, they’re going to want to put a government together in 2021. If they spend the next two years blocking us, there is zero chance that Republicans are going to let them put a government together in 2021.”
Trump has frequently vented his frustration on Twitter about how long the Senate — where any one member can drag out debate time — has taken to confirm key posts in his administration. Speeding up the process would fill many vacancies across an administration that remains largely unstaffed.
Barrasso, the No. 3 member of the GOP leadership, said the breaking point came when the Senate had to return more than 270 nominations to the White House on the morning of Jan. 3, when the 115th Congress officially ended. Many of those were for lower-level posts that Democrats would not allow to be approved in a year-end package.
“Heads of countries are calling wanting to know why Senator Schumer is not approving their otherwise approved Ambassadors!?” Trump tweeted Dec. 31, although he did not specify which world leaders had contacted him. “Likewise in Government lawyers and others are being delayed at a record pace!”
Lankford’s proposal would keep the 30 hours of debate time for high-profile nominees such as Supreme Court and circuit court candidates, Cabinet picks and nominees for a bipartisan commission such as the Federal Communications Commission. But the 30 hours would be limited to two hours for district court nominees, and most executive branch nominees would have eight hours.