Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has appeared to signal that he will end the long-held practice of giving senators a chance to block judicial nominees who would have jurisdiction over their states — a move that comes as McConnell is facing increasing pressure from conservative groups to make the Senate more responsive to President Trump's wishes.
In an interview with the Weekly Standard, McConnell (R-Ky.) stressed that the use of "blue slips" — named after the piece of paper senators from a potential federal judge's state must sign to indicate their approval — is a custom, not a rule, and that the use of them will no longer be enforced.
His comments suggest that a dramatic expansion could be coming of a Republican campaign to pull back on blue slip authority. In an interview with the New York Times last month, McConnell said that the Senate would no longer be observing the blue slip tradition for appeals court judges — arguing that it was not fair to allow just one senator to block progress on an appeals court judge with jurisdiction over several states if other senators from affected states were on board.
The announcement came in the midst of a few high-profile standoffs between Republicans and Democrats over circuit court judges, such as Sen. Al Franken's (D-Minn.) declaration that he would not return a blue slip for Minnesota Supreme Court Judge David Stras to join the bench of the 8th Circuit Court, and Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden's refusal to return blue slips for prosecutor Ryan Bounds, Trump's nominee to sit on the 9th Circuit.
This time, McConnell's comments come as conservative groups are pressing him to take more action on Trump's judicial nominees. According to a report in Politico, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network is planing to spend a quarter-million dollars on ads pushing McConnell to clear more of Trump's nominees.
McConnell cannot dictate such a policy shift on his own, and a spokeswoman for the majority leader urged against interpreting his comments too broadly.
Such a potential expansion would mean, however, that Democrats will be hard-pressed to prevent any of Trump's judicial nominees from being confirmed, so long as Republicans can agree on them.
Thanks to a rules change that the Senate adopted when Democrats were the majority in that chamber, it only takes 51 votes to confirm federal judges. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted in a statement that "the Senate has fewer and fewer mechanisms that create bipartisanship and bring people to an agreement."
"The blue slips are one of them," he continued. ". . . It's just a shame that Senator McConnell is willing to abandon it for circuit court judges."
Schumer also expressed hope that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) "who has always believed in the traditions of the Senate, will resist Senator McConnell's request."
In a statement, Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said that the senator has a tradition of using blue slips, and "expects senators and the president to continue engaging in consultation when selecting judicial nominees."
But the blue slip practice is not guaranteed, he added, saying that Grassley "will determine how to apply the blue slip courtesy for federal judicial nominees, as has always been the practice," and would address "abuses" of the blue slip process "on a case-by-case basis."