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Senate Republicans set to go 'nuclear' with rules change for Trump nominations


Senate Republicans are planning to go “nuclear” on Wednesday with a rules change for hundreds of nominations, escalating a war with Democrats over President Trump’s picks.

After fuming for years over the pace of confirmations, Republicans say the years-long fight will soon come to a head, and the end result will dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to confirm most nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made his pitch Tuesday for changing the rules after a closed-door caucus lunch, saying the executive calendar that tracks nominations is in “chaos.”

“If we don’t stop this behavior now, it will become the norm,” he told reporters.

Nominations currently face up to an additional 30 hours of debate after they’ve overcome an initial hurdle showing they have the support to get confirmed. Under the GOP resolution, spearheaded by Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), that would be reduced to two hours for most executive nominees and lower-level district judge nominations.

Supreme Court justices, appeals court judges, Cabinet picks and roughly a dozen boards and commissions would be exempt from the proposed rules change.

The rules change will mark the second time in as many years that Republicans have gone “nuclear” to make it easier to confirm the president’s nominees. GOP senators in April 2017 nixed the 60-vote filibuster for Supreme Court picks, mirroring an action taken by Democrats in 2013 on lower-level judicial picks and executive nominees.

Republicans say they are now at a breaking point with Democrats, whom they’ve accused of slow-walking the president’s nominees.

“Over the past two years, some in this body have decided that they will oppose any nominee suggested by President Trump,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Republicans tried to implement the rules change as a “standing order” on Tuesday, a move that would have required bipartisan support. But the effort fell short of the 60 votes needed to change the rules without deploying the nuclear option.

GOP Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) was the only Republican to vote against the change, saying the Senate needs “to serve its deliberative function in our constitutional system.”

“I oppose changing the post-cloture time rule. I certainly oppose breaking the rules of the Senate to do so. The current rules can work for the American people; they simply require us to do the same,” he added in a statement.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted for the resolution on Tuesday but said she had not yet made a decision about whether she would support using the nuclear option to change the rules.

“I’m very sympathetic to the frustration over the continued obstruction by the Democrats on even noncontroversial nominees. I just don’t understand the rationale for that,” she said.

GOP leaders believe they have the 51 votes needed to force the rules change through over Democratic objections on Wednesday. Republicans held a conference meeting late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the procedural tactics for how they would bring up the change on the floor, and emerged from the closed-door meeting ready to move forward.

Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership team and chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said ahead of the meeting that Republicans have the votes needed to change the rules.

“It’s a matter of tactics, exactly how you do it,” he said. “But we’re good. We will get most of this done.”

McConnell has teed up two nominations for a procedural vote as soon as Wednesday — one on a district judge, the other a lower-level executive nominee — which would set the stage for Republicans to bring the nuclear option to the floor.

Republicans have made public appeals to the several Democratic presidential candidates, warning that GOP retribution could make it impossible for them to staff a future Democratic administration.

“Just imagine if Democrats’ behavior over the past two years becomes the norm. Presidents could be waiting years to adequately staff their administrations and the Senate would be perpetually tied up on unnecessary cloture votes, leaving less and less time to actually do the business of governing,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

GOP sponsors of the resolution reached out to Democratic senators to see if they could strike a deal, but those talks failed to gain significant momentum.

McConnell added that while there had been some interest among rank-and-file Democratic senators, he and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) talked last week and couldn’t reach an agreement.

Sources familiar with the negotiations told The Hill last week that Democrats have tried to negotiate a deal with McConnell, with suggested changes such as postponing the rules change until 2021, applying it only to executive nominees or restoring the “blue slip” for circuit court picks.

Democrats argue that Republicans cannot simultaneously complain about the pace of confirmations while setting a record for the number of appeals court judges confirmed during a president’s first two years.

“Why change the rules for lifetime appointments and give only two hours of debate? This change is not just unnecessary, it would allow fundamentally unqualified candidates from judges to administration officials and ambassadors to be confirmed,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a 2020 presidential candidate and the top Democrat on the Rules Committee.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) added that “the significant rule change will help Donald Trump and his Republican enablers in the Senate to more swiftly pack our district courts with ideologically driven judges, judges who will make biased rulings in line with their personal ideological beliefs and not based on the law or the Constitution.”

Democrats are facing pressure from some progressive groups to refuse to return their blue slips on district court nominees. Republicans have said they will respect the blue slip for the lower-court judges, meaning if Democrats don’t return their blue slip, that could keep Trump from filling a seat from their home state.

But progressives could face an uphill battle to get Democrats to block nominations they would otherwise support.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) appeared to brush off calls for Democrats not to return their blue slips on district judges if Republicans move forward.

“It makes no sense for us to deny blue slips for nominees we support,” he said.

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