Government & Politics

Senate GOP goes ‘nuclear’ to limit debate on nominees in change championed by Blunt

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined from left by Sens. Roy Blunt, John Thune and Majority Whip John Cornyn, speaks with reporters last September.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, joined from left by Sens. Roy Blunt, John Thune and Majority Whip John Cornyn, speaks with reporters last September. AP

Senate Republicans on Wednesday slashed required debate time for most of President Donald Trump’s nominees from 30 hours to two— a move Democrats say will enable candidates for lifetime federal court positions to avoid scrutiny.

Democrats assailed the move as an effort to pack federal courts with ideologically-driven nominees. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, one of the architects of the change, disputed the suggestion that the move is outside the norms of the Senate.

“If you look at the history of the Senate, the filibuster until 2003— so for well over 200 years— was never considered to be part of the nominating process,” said Blunt, the Senate Rules chairman.

“What we’re doing here actually takes the Senate more back to a pre-George W. Bush world. With Ronald Reagan, when his nominees got out of committee the average time before they got a vote was 5 days. With President Trump it’s 55 days.”

Under the precedent set Wednesday, the Senate will limit debate to two hours for district court nominees and most federal agency positions. Nominees to circuit courts, the Supreme Court and cabinet posts will continue to face 30 hours of debate.

Republicans exercised the “nuclear option” —a change of Senate rules by a simple majority—without a single Democratic vote by a 51-48 margin. This followed Democrats’ resistance to pressure by the GOP to agree to a compromise proposal. Blunt said Democrats had plenty of opportunities to present a counteroffer after Republicans announced they had enough votes to pass the change on their own.

“All they care about is getting as many of their people on the courts for lifetime as possible,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Two hours for a lifetime appointment with huge influence on people’s lives is unacceptable,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York. “It’s ridiculous. It’s a mockery of how this institution should work.”

Republicans counter that carving out 30 hours of debate time doesn’t mean that senators are spending that amount of time on floor arguing over nominations.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, who crafted the rule change with Blunt, pointed to the use of the 30-hour requirement earlier this month when William Beach was confirmed 55-44 to head the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Literally no one spoke on the floor,” Lankford said.

The new two-hour limit was established Wednesday when the Senate held confirmation votes on Virginia attorney Jeffrey Kessler to serve as assistant secretary of Commerce and Florida attorney Roy Altman to fill a vacancy on the federal district court in South Florida.

Republicans say the rule change will enable Trump to fill hundreds of vacancies in the federal government and court system, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said most of the current vacancies exist because Trump has failed to nominate anyone for those positions.

“Our committee has zero nominees ready for a committee vote. It’s not because anybody is blocking them. It’s because the Trump administration seems uninterested in putting nominees forward,” Wyden said.