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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Pledge to block Biden nominations could prove thorny for Dems, but remains bitter pill for some Republicans

It’s unclear how a growing number of GOP lawmakers plan to obstruct the White House’s political and judicial appointments, and some top Republicans remain skeptical of their colleagues’ partisan gambit. But that doesn’t mean the pledge poses no threat to Democrats.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Although more than a dozen Senate Republicans have formally resolved to prevent the Biden administration from confirming any more of its nominees for political appointments or federal judgeships, the effort has far from secured ubiquitous GOP support.

And exactly how the Republican gambit to gum up the works, positioned as a response to the recent conviction of former President Donald Trump in a New York court, will keep the White House from pursuing its agenda under a Democratic Senate majority, has yet to emerge.

In the pledge unveiled last week by Utah Senator Mike Lee, the GOP lawmakers argued that President Biden “has made a mockery of the rule of law and fundamentally altered our politics in un-American ways.”

It was the Manhattan district attorney, not federal prosecutors, who brought charges and ultimately proved the case accusing Trump of falsifying business records to conceal a hush money deal aimed at silencing his affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Regardless, the group of Republicans, which initially included Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville, Missouri Senator Eric Schmitt, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn and Florida Senator Rick Scott, resolved not to vote for any non-security-related funding for the administration and said they would refuse to allow Democrats to fast-track legislation “not directly relevant to the safety of the American people.”

Moreover, the lawmakers said they would no longer “vote to confirm this administration’s political and judicial appointees.”

In the days after Lee’s pledge circulated, its number of Republican signatories has slowly grown. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Montana Senator Steve Daines became the latest lawmakers to attach their names to the petition, bringing the total number of GOP signers to 13.

“The fire is spreading,” Lee wrote in a Tuesday post on X, formerly Twitter.

Despite the number of Republicans who have resolved not to vote for Biden nominees, though, some GOP lawmakers — including some who have a bone to pick with the administration’s handling of judicial appointments — have been skeptical of how such an effort would shake out.

“I don’t know what that would really accomplish,” said North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, telling Courthouse News Tuesday that he still had to discuss the pledge with his colleagues.

Tillis, who has refused to work with the White House on district court nominees in his state until they negotiate on an appointment for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, pointed out that even if Republicans withheld their votes for Biden nominees, they would still likely clear the Senate Judiciary Committee, controlled by Democrats.

“I’m trying to get us back to regular order,” said Tillis, citing discussions on the Judiciary Committee about returning to the abandoned blue slip tradition for appellate nominees. “I think this takes us further away.”

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who previously chaired the Judiciary Committee under then-President Trump, told Courthouse News he was still undecided about the pledge.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to suggest there was little Republicans, as the minority party in the upper chamber, could do to successfully block the White House’s judicial agenda.

“The solution is to have a Republican majority,” he told reporters during a news conference Tuesday. “Then we’ll be in a position to determine what the agenda is going to be.”

Beyond the lukewarm reception from some corners of the Senate Republican caucus, the signatories of last week’s pledge also appear to be on different pages about how they plan to hold up Biden nominees.

While the language of Lee’s statement says Republicans will merely not vote to confirm judicial or political appointees, some members of his coalition, such as Kansas Senator Roger Marshall, have signaled that they will do everything they can to block those nominees from getting approved.

Still, Marshall raised questions about his own adherence to that resolution Tuesday, when he voted in favor of confirming Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chair Christopher Hanson to another five-year term on the nuclear safety board. Biden renominated Hanson to the position, but he was first confirmed under Trump.

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, another signatory to the proposed blockade, said Tuesday that joining the pledge wouldn’t represent a change in how he approaches Biden nominees.

“My thought is, I do all that stuff anyway,” he told Courthouse News. “I don’t think I’ve hardly voted for a Biden nominee for just about anything.”

Hawley said he welcomed his colleagues joining what he described as his “general approach” to political and judicial appointment from the Biden White House. “For me, it’s really no change,” he explained.

Hawley didn’t dispel the idea that members of the anti-nominee coalition could take more drastic action to hold up appointments but added that it was something he would have to first discuss with his colleagues. “My general approach is that it’s not going to change,” he said.

But even if the Republican pledge appears disjointed and lacks the emphatic support of GOP leaders, that doesn’t eliminate the danger for Democrats and the Biden administration, cautioned Carl Tobias, chair of the University of Richmond School of Law.

“I’m waiting to see how it’s going to unfold and how many people agree to take this pledge,” said Tobias, “because if it really is a pledge and they’re going to be bound by it, then it seems to me that there are a lot of negative things that would flow from that.”

The White House’s nominees for district courts, where many vacancies are in red states such as Missouri and Florida, could suffer thanks to the pledge, he posited. Republicans supporting the effort could convince colleagues to withhold support for district nominees in their states.

“It effectively could shut down district nominations and confirmations for the rest of 2024,” Tobias said.

The bloc may appear disparate in its approach to stopping Biden nominees, but that doesn’t mean their strategy won’t coalesce, he argued.

“I think this cuts new and disturbing ground if it really gets orchestrated, as it could,” said Tobias, “and if it becomes the view of the whole, of all Republicans, then that’s another bottom point they’ve breached.”

Democrats, he warned, should take that threat seriously.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal agreed, telling Courthouse News Tuesday that “any threat to block judicial nominees has to be taken seriously.”

“They’re the ones who administer and implement justice,” Blumenthal said.

The Connecticut Democrat added that he thought it was “unfortunate” his GOP colleagues were aiming to blockade the White House’s political agenda in response to Trump’s conviction, but pointed out that there wasn’t much that Democrats could do to stop them from voting for Biden appointees.

“All we can do is hope that their sense of constitutional justice prevails,” Blumenthal said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, had a blunter observation about the initial group of Republicans who pledged to block White House nominees.

“Those eight senators rarely support them anyway,” he said.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
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