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Senate GOP Set to Revive Time Limits on Debating Nominees

Rules panel expected to advance changes along party lines

Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., led the advancement of the proposal to effectively change the rules for debating presidential nominees. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., led the advancement of the proposal to effectively change the rules for debating presidential nominees. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican senators will take a small step Wednesday toward speeding up the pace of confirming President Donald Trump’s nominees even as controversy swirls around his pick to head the Veterans Affairs Department. 

The proposal by Sen. James Lankford is not exactly new. In fact, it isn’t new at all.

The Oklahoma Republican and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer traded barbs Tuesday, ahead of the Rules and Administration Committee action.

“Our Republican colleagues are trying to move forward with a partisan proposal to ram through President Trump’s nominees at an even faster rate,” Schumer told reporters. “This push comes in the midst of yet another example of the Trump administration’s failure to adequately and properly vet their nominees.”

The New York Democrat was linking the debate over debate time to the controversy surrounding Trump’s VA secretary nominee, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson.

Watch: How to Change Senate Rules, Slowly, With the ‘Book of Spells’

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Senators and staffers with the Veterans’ Affairs Committee have been hearing significant concerns about the current White House physician’s suitability for the Cabinet post. One day before the confirmation hearing, the panel postponed Jackson’s appearance.

Lankford’s plan would revive and make permanent restrictions on floor debate time after a filibuster has been broken that were established on a bipartisan basis in 2013 for the 113th Congress.

“I think we anticipate a largely partisan vote to get that bill out of committee, but we will get it out of committee and see what happens once that return to a standing order that would be a permanent standing order this time,” Rules Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri said. “But there is no reason that you should have been willing to do this in 2013 and not willing to do this in 2018.”

In dueling floor speeches Tuesday, Schumer and Lankford highlighted the bickering that’s become the norm for presidential appointments.

“The rules change proposed by Sen. Lankford is totally unmerited, inadvisable and lacks any knowledge of history of the Senate,” said Schumer, citing changes since 2013 that included Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision not to call up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

Lankford defended his proposal, which would reduce from 30 hours to eight the time for debate after cloture has been invoked for the bulk of nominations. There would be exceptions for Cabinet nominees and some other senior positions, so Jackson’s nomination to lead the VA would not be covered.

It would also reduce debate time for federal district judges to two hours.

“This is not some radical proposal,” he said. “Democrats in 2013 found it intolerable what was happening with the nomination process. And so at the beginning of 2013, they worked with Republicans and said, ‘We need to be able to put a structure in place to be able to get nominations through because a president should be able to have his staff put in place and there shouldn’t be an arbitrary slowdown through that process.’”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a longtime member of the Rules panel, helped broker the original experiment.

“If it was a good idea in 2013, it ought to be a good idea in 2018,” the Tennessee Republican said. “Why would we want the world’s greatest deliberative body, the Senate, to [appear] when people turn on C-SPAN and see that we’re doing nothing?”

Senate floor consideration?

Since 2013, when a Democratic-led Senate tried to get a Democratic president’s nominees confirmed, relations have only gotten worse. Both Democratic and Republican majority leaders have used the “nuclear option” to change the vote threshold so only a simple majority is needed to confirm nominations, including to the Supreme Court.

Trump has repeatedly complained about what he calls Democratic delay tactics, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short has said it would take the Senate eleven and a half years to confirm the president’s nominees at this rate.

The measure appears likely to advance from the Rules panel on a party-line vote. That means the resolution would be available for McConnell to consider on the floor, but taking action would require going around the current rules and procedures to consider it with only a simple majority of Republicans to support it.

Lankford has said the measure has been crafted in a way that would require 60 votes to overcome procedural obstacles.

McConnell should consider taking steps to get floor consideration — even if there is the partisan committee vote that Blunt expects, said Sen. Ted Cruz, a member of the Rules panel.

“It would be an amazing display of partisan hypocrisy, given that the proposal Sen. Lankford has put forth is identical to the proposal that Harry Reid implemented when the Democrats were in control, and that the Republicans in the minority agreed to,” the Texas Republican said.

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