Senate Republicans, frustrated with Democrats’ stalling tactics, began their effort Wednesday to streamline the process for confirming presidential nominees, particularly those below Cabinet level and in low-level posts on the federal judiciary.
Republicans complain that Democrats have drawn out debate on even the least-controversial nominees, just for the sake of delay and, they contend, to deny Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the time needed to put actual legislation on the Senate floor.
“It’s not about vetting; this was just about slowing things down,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who is leading the effort to cut down the debate time allotted for some nominees to federal agencies and courts.
But this move comes just as President Trump has sent a pair of controversial nominees to the Senate, to run the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, raising questions about how well the picks were vetted. This has been a perfectly timed gift to Democrats, who point to these choices as a reason to take as much time as possible, not less, to review Trump’s selections.
And it comes as there has been no healing of the emotional scar tissue of several decades of nomination battles. Democrats feel no need to do favors for GOP senators after they blocked Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination by President Barack Obama to the Supreme Court two years ago, and they remain furious at last year’s decision to eliminate the traditional courtesy of allowing senators to have veto power over which judges are appointed from their states.
“The Republican majority has already taken brazen steps this Congress to limit minority rights on nominations,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday during a floor speech.
The outcome of the partisan confrontation is likely to be gridlock. The Rules Committee approved Lankford’s proposal Wednesday on a party-line vote and sent it on for consideration by the full Senate, where it will need at least nine Democrats to join Republicans to clear a filibuster and create what would be known as a permanent standing order — the equivalent of an official rule change.
Democrats are not planning on giving that level of bipartisan support to the proposal, which, both sides fear, will send the Senate deeper into the procedural quagmire of recent years and potentially trigger more moves to unilaterally change the rules.
“It feels like we’re just moving toward the Senate becoming a majority-vote institution,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). He was one of the junior Democrats who pushed leaders to change rules in 2013 on a party-line vote, allowing most nominees to be confirmed with a simple majority.
Republicans have not forgiven Democrats for changing the rules on a unilateral vote, as opposed to the two-thirds hurdle traditionally required, and McConnell returned the favor by changing the rules unilaterally, extending the simple-majority requirement to Supreme Court justices to allow the confirmation of Neil M. Gorsuch last April.
The minority party, first the Republicans and now the Democrats, responded to these rules maneuvers by often using up every hour of debate and procedural time available, setting the stage for the next phase of the nomination wars.
One flickering moment of bipartisan hope emerged Monday evening when the Foreign Relations Committee considered the nomination of Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had unexpectedly flipped from a hard no to a reluctant yes, and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) was home delivering the eulogy at a close friend’s funeral.
Senate leaders originally expected Pompeo to receive a negative recommendation but advance for a full Senate vote. Instead, with Paul’s switch, the vote was 10 to 10 because, under Senate rules, Isakson could not cast a proxy vote if it were to be the decisive vote.
The chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), asked whether a Democrat was willing to vote present, but most clammed up amid fear of how the liberal base would react if they took the step that allowed a Trump nominee to advance.
Finally, Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a close friend of the Georgian’s, volunteered to vote present as a favor to Isakson and to prevent all 21 senators and the committee staff from resuming the vote at midnight.
Corker and some Republicans grew emotional watching Coons do something that they viewed as politically courageous in these hyperpartisan times. “This was not an act of courage or an abandonment of principles; it was simply a courtesy to a friend who would do the same for me,” Coons said in a statement later.
That goodwill did not last long. By Tuesday morning, Schumer and Lankford were trading allegations in Senate floor speeches, with the Democratic leader suggesting that the relative newcomer did not know his history.
Schumer rejected any comparison to his 2013 compromise, because too much had happened in the intervening five years, beginning with the Garland blockade.
“The rules change proposed by Senator Lankford is totally unmerited, inadvisable and lacks any knowledge of the history of the Senate,” Schumer said.
That is why Lankford modeled his proposal on one that Schumer had personally negotiated in 2013, a two-year cease-fire on some nominations. The Schumer plan cut down the amount of debate time to between two and eight hours for most nominees, except for Cabinet posts and judicial nominees to the appellate courts or the Supreme Court.
But that agreement lapsed when Republicans took over the majority in 2015, and every nominee is subject to the same slow-walk if the minority chooses to drag out the process: McConnell files a motion to open debate, the next day is reserved for debate, and the next day the motion is voted on. After that, 30 hours of debate.
All told, Democrats can draw out a single nomination over four days, something Republicans did plenty of in their last months in the minority four years ago.
Republicans say they have been forced on more than 80 occasions to file that initial motion, taking away at least one day from doing anything else in the Senate, even when some nominees go on to be confirmed with huge bipartisan votes.
Lankford is not hopeful about the future. “I just see where the Senate’s going, and if we don’t fix this, this gets worse long term,” he said.