Senate Republicans Move to Fill Court Vacancies Faster

WASHINGTON (CN) – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took steps Thursday to speed up confirmation of some of President Donald Trump’s nominees, including people nominated to federal district courts.

In this May 15, 2018, file photo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pauses as he speaks to reporters in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, set up a vote next week on a bill that would change Senate rules to reduce the amount of time it takes for nominees to be confirmed. Current rules allow for 30 hours of debate on nominees after a procedural step known as cloture, but under the measure McConnell called up Thursday, that time would drop to two hours.

The change would not apply to nominees for the Supreme Court, federal appeals courts or cabinet-level executive branch positions. In addition to federal district court nominees and lower-level executive branch positions, the measure would also speed up consideration for nominees to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

In a floor speech announcing the move, McConnell decried a “systematic, across-the-board” effort from Democrats to slow down the confirmation process for Trump nominees.

Republicans have complained about Democrats’ insistence on holding cloture votes for even uncontroversial nominees, saying it is simply an attempt to gum up the Senate’s work.

“This is not a principled maneuver, not thoughtful use of minority powers,” McConnell said. “Obstruction simply for the sake of obstruction.”

There are currently 39 federal judicial nominees waiting for confirmation on the Senate’s calendar who could seek quicker confirmation if the Senate adopts the measure next week.

McConnell called for Democrats to support the move, acknowledging in a floor speech that a future Republican Senate minority will likely use similar procedural maneuvers to delay a Democratic president’s nominees.  

“I’m still hopeful that we may have bipartisan support for it,” McConnell told reporters Thursday after making his announcement.

The measure would need 60 votes to pass and Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage in the chamber.

But whether McConnell can get that level of support from Democrats remains very much in question. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized McConnell for trying to have it both ways with the Senate’s minority powers.

“Senator McConnell’s approach has always been to manipulate Senate rules when it helps him and then change Senate rules when the tables turn: this is just another step in his effort to limit the rights of the minority and cede authority to the administration,” Schumer said in a statement Thursday.

Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., challenged McConnell on the Senate floor to open up the measure to a broader debate about Senate rules changes. After leaving the floor, Merkley said the “ball is in [McConnell’s] court.”

“It depends on what he puts on the floor,” Merkley told Courthouse News. “If it merits our support, it will get our support.”

The Senate’s handling of judicial nominees has been an enduring point of contention among lawmakers, as they argue about which party has done more to upend the process.

Republicans blame Democrats for changing rules in 2013 to do away with the filibuster for most federal court nominees and for their opposition to judges nominated during President George W. Bush’s administration.

But Democrats point back at the lengthy blockade Republicans put up against President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees, most dramatically in their refusal to hold hearings on D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, whom Obama nominated to the Supreme Court after former Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016.

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