It is unusual for a sitting senator to be the sole witness before a committee, and it is even more unusual for a senator to face questions in such a setting.
But such was the experience Tuesday afternoon when Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford appeared in the Rules and Administration Committee hearing room with a dire warning.
“From here on out, every president in their first 100 days won’t even get their Cabinet in place. They won’t be able to move legislation because they won’t be able to get personnel,” Lankford said. “Because it will be tit-for-tat from here on out.”
Lankford was appearing to pitch a proposal to revive and make permanent an expired order limiting debate time on most nominations.
The January 2013 standing order, which sunset at the end of the 113th Congress, provided that district court judicial nominees faced only two hours of debate after breaking a filibuster, with eight hours for a host of executive branch posts (but not the Cabinet).
“I believe that change struck the appropriate balance between preserving time for debate without needlessly delaying the inevitable confirmation of nominees,” Rules and Administration Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said.
“There’s not a lot of debate that happens on the floor anymore. Most of it happens in committee, and now with 51 votes for all nominees, the outcome is most often certain,” Lankford said. “The issue is: Are we are going to do legislation and nominations or are we only going to do nominations?”
The 2013 agreement took effect before the Democratic majority under then-Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada used the so-called “nuclear option” to set a precedent that only a simple majority was required to break filibusters on most all nominations.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, was among the members expressing concern about removing additional protections for the minority party.
“If we’ve gone from 60 to 51, and if we’re shortening the time, and if we’re drifting away from the blue slip requirement, it seems to me we’re moving very rapidly toward a majority-only [body],” King said during questioning of Lankford.
The crux of the issue for Republicans is the belief that Democrats are using the Senate’s responsibility to confirm Trump’s nominees to fill up the limited time on the calendar and block out potential legislative victories other than top priorities like the tax code overhaul that should be cleared on Wednesday.
“Nobody is opposed to 30 hours of debate time if there was actually 30 hours of debate,” said Sen. Roy Blunt. “Certainty we could eventually get these people confirmed if we don’t do anything else, but it’s clear that this is being used to slow down the other work of the Senate and for no other purpose.”
Blunt, a Missouri Republican and member of leadership, previously served as the chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee.
It is the Senate’s custom for a large batch of mid-level nominations to be confirmed by unanimous consent before Christmas. Ahead of the Rules and Administration hearing the work on compiling that batch is still under way, a senior Democratic aide said.
Shelby initially scheduled a business meeting to mark up the rules change resolution immediately after hearing Lankford’s testimony, but an aide to the Alabama Republican said the markup portion would be postponed.
Another Republican aide suggested the delay was caused by concerns about the ability to establish a quorum. The hearing was taking place as all the attention was on the tax overhaul conference report, with committee members and Lankford having to leave the room at one point to cast floor votes on the motion to proceed to the conference report after the House passed it on Tuesday afternoon.