Senate Keeps Seating Judges in Lame-Duck Session, Close to Approving Federal Claims Pick

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington. (Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate is poised to put another Trump nominee on the federal bench as the president’s time in office draws to an end, agreeing to limit debate on his pick for the U.S. Federal Claims court in a 48-46 vote.

Stephen Schwartz, a former partner at the Washington firm Schaerr Duncan, will serve a 15-year term on the specialty court that hears lawsuits raising monetary claims against the federal government. 

Schwartz, 36, is a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal activist group that has played a big role in shaping President Donald Trump’s judicial appointments.

He will fill one of six vacancies on the court that he has never argued before. He spent just nine years practicing law before his 2017 nomination to the Court of Federal Claims. In that time, he took several questionable cases Democrats highlighted during one of his nomination hearings: he helped draft a Supreme Court brief arguing against letting a transgender teen use the boys’ bathroom at school and worked on another defending a North Carolina voter ID law that the Fourth Circuit found targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.”

In law school, Schwartz wrote in support of some controversial positions, including arguing there was no constitutional basis for the creation of the Transportation, Agriculture and Education departments. He also penned articles arguing for the elimination of Social Security.

He was renominated last year after his first nomination made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee got stalled at the end of a busy Senate term.

The Senate vote to confirm Schwartz comes amid a record number of daily Covid-19 infections in the U.S. – more than 173,000 new cases were reported nationwide on Sunday – and continued negotiations between lawmakers on additional legislative relief. Senate and House leadership also are at odds over passing next year’s federal budget.

Last week, a bipartisan coalition presented a $908 billion relief framework, which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has endorsed. Pelosi’s home state of California entered a new phase of lockdowns Monday complete with stay-at-home orders, as hospitalizations reach record highs and testing positivity rates top 10%.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat Vermont, said Monday that his GOP colleagues should stop stalling passage of the Heroes Act – a $3 trillion relief bill House Democrats passed in May – by focusing on other business like confirming judges.  

“Why aren’t we voting?” Leahy said. “Look what happens. We can’t bring ourselves to actually vote on something to help Americans, help people of our own states.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said from the chamber floor that targeted Covid-19 relief packages had been brought before the Senate — including one that provided broad immunity protections for businesses from being sued by infected employees – but Democrats blocked that package and another in October in a push to extend Paycheck Protection Program payments.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York noted it was Republican leadership that decided to adjourn the Senate as Covid-19 cases rose this summer, accusing his counterparts of only offering one-sided bills that excluded Democratic input.

“While the nation has been clamoring for a bipartisan solution, the Senate, under the leadership of the Republican leader, has only been allowed to vote on partisan, Republican proposals, each of which has been sorely inadequate and each of which has contained poison pills designed to ensure the bill’s failure,” Schumer said. “The Republican leader never mentions those poison pills in his speeches to this chamber, where he excoriates Democrats for refusing to pass ‘bipartisan legislation that everyone agrees on.’”

As for government funding, McConnell said he hoped a full funding package would come to the floor for a vote in both chambers in the coming weeks. A one-week stopgap bill would likely be passed this week to prevent a government shutdown on Friday, with lawmakers working into next week to draft a larger plan.

“The nation needs our Democratic colleagues to resist the temptation to play brinkmanship with long-settled policy issues, or push poison pill riders that they know would tank the process,” McConnell said.

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