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Senate Republicans want to change the rules to push through more Trump nominees

They just got one step closer to doing it.

Lawmakers Work On Compromise Bills To End Partial Government Shutdown
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) smiles while talking with reporters following remarks on the Senate floor after an announced end to the partial government shutdown at the U.S. Capitol January 25, 2019 in Washington, DC.
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Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Republicans want to change the rules so they can push through more of Trump’s judicial and administrative nominees — and they just got one step closer to doing so.

The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday advanced a resolution that would further limit the amount of time different nominees could be debated on the Senate floor. Currently, if lawmakers vote to limit debate on a nominee, that back-and-forth is still able to continue for 30 hours. Practically speaking, because there is only so much time the Senate is in session, this means there’s a finite number of nominees that Republicans can get through — and that’s something they want to change.

A resolution from Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and James Lankford (R-OK) want to curb debate time to two hours per nominee, thereby expediting the process significantly — and increasing the number of district judges the Senate could confirm.

This resolution, something Republicans say they’ve proposed in direct response to Democratic efforts to obstruct Trump’s nominees, would only apply to district court judicial appointees and lower-level positions in the administration. It does not cover nominees for the Supreme Court, circuit courts, or Cabinet positions.

Republicans argue that this rules change is necessary because Democrats have gone out of their way to slow-walk consideration of Trump’s nominees. Democrats, meanwhile, say that Republicans have gutted other processes, like “blue slips,” that would enable them to otherwise vocalize their concern with different nominees.

“Senate Democrats spent the first two years of the Trump administration dragging out the confirmation process to not only deny the president his team, but also to waste hours of floor time that should have been spent focusing on the American people’s priorities,” Blunt said in a statement. “This has been nothing more than obstruction for the sake of obstruction and it is outrageous.”

Blunt’s critiques hit at Democratic efforts to stall Trump nominees in the wake of Senate rules changes that have eviscerated the filibuster. After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used the “nuclear option” to reduce the number of votes needed to confirm Supreme Court nominees — a process first initiated by Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid for lower-level judicial appointees — Democrats have scrambled to leverage every procedural tool at their disposal to try to slow confirmations.

The effort has riled up both President Trump and Senate Republicans, who’ve made the confirmation of judicial nominees, especially, central to their congressional agenda.

“As I’ve said before, there is time for obstruction; I’ve engaged in it myself. It depends on what you’re obstructing. If it’s something big and important, understandable,” McConnell said in early February. “If you’re just trying to throw sand in the gear so the administration can’t function, unacceptable.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already rejected the rules change, which will need 60 votes and the support of some Democrats to ultimately pass the upper chamber. On Tuesday, Schumer told Bloomberg he wouldn’t support it unless Republicans reinstated other formal processes for Democrats to push back against different nominees.

“Unless they go back to 60 votes or restore the blue slips, either one, then there’s a reason to move along,” he said.

How the rules change would work

As the rules currently stand, Trump nominees undergoing Senate confirmation typically receive two votes if they are contentious. The first vote is a procedural vote to limit debate on their nomination, and the second vote is to officially confirm them.

Any member of the Senate can oppose the consideration of a nominee on the floor and argue for debate to continue in perpetuity. That first procedural vote, known as a “cloture” vote, is aimed at limiting this debate so that the upper chamber can actually vote on a nomination. If the Senate votes in favor of the first procedural vote, further debate on the nominee is curbed at 30 hours.

As former Harry Reid staffer Adam Jentleson noted in a piece for the Washington Post, forcing the use of this procedural vote is one of the few tactics Democrats still have to delay the confirmations on Trump nominees. If they employ it, nominees could take up to four days to get approved.

Democrats have used this tactic more frequently in the Trump administration than many previous ones, simply because other means to oppose different nominees have been eroded. Previously lawmakers could use “blue slips” to indicate that they weren’t pleased with a particular judicial nominee, but Republican Judiciary Committee chairs have not enforced the use of this option.

Republicans aren’t pleased with the confirmation delays these procedural votes and subsequent debate have caused, and that’s exactly what this rules change seeks to address.

“President Bush, Clinton, and Obama had a total of 24 cloture votes filed in all three administrations in those first two years; 128 cloture votes have been required by Democrats in this Congress,” Blunt said during a Tuesday press briefing. “It is clearly an attempt just to use up time.”

If it goes through, the debate on nominees would be limited to two hours rather than 30. It’s a change that had also previously been made to Senate procedure in 2013 as a temporary standing order, but Blunt and Lankford’s resolution would make the change permanent.

The rules update would cut the time needed to confirm nominees by about a day, meaning the Republican majority could potentially push through more nominees.

The rules change needs 60 votes to pass the Senate

While the rules change has successfully made it through committee, it won’t pass the chamber without the backing of at least seven members of the Democratic caucus. It’s unclear whether it will be able to garner this support since no Democrats voted in favor of it in committee on Wednesday and Schumer has already rejected the proposal.

As the Washington Post reported, McConnell has floated using the “nuclear option” to get the resolution through the Senate. If he does that, the rules change would only need 51 votes to pass, something it would comfortably receive given the 53-47 Republican majority.

“Make no mistake that Republicans can change this and will,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN).

It’s a move that would help Republicans achieve one of their key priorities, but it would also give Democrats even more license to say that the GOP is focused on jamming through their nominees, no matter how far that shifts Senate norms.

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