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Appropriations Vs. Judges: Battle for Senate Floor Time Nears

White House, senators apply pressure on summer recess

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been upfront about his wish to approve nominations and consider appropriations bills on the floor this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been upfront about his wish to approve nominations and consider appropriations bills on the floor this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Nominations and spending bills — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s twin top priorities this summer — are on a collision course given the scarcity of floor time.

The Kentucky Republican has made confirming conservative judges a core mission this year. He’s also told appropriators he wants the Senate to move back toward real floor debate on spending bills, including amendments, while avoiding another massive year-end pileup with another 12-bill omnibus President Donald Trump said he won’t sign.

McConnell is expected to break away from judicial and executive branch nominations in June to debate fiscal 2019 appropriations bills. But how much time he’ll dedicate to restoring some semblance of “regular order” on spending is unclear.

With 14 legislative weeks that the Senate is in session between now and the end of the fiscal year, there is only so much floor time to go around, and appropriators are beginning to wonder where they rank.

“The Senate can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman James Lankford said. “So, if you’ve got post-cloture time pending on a nominee, you can’t get on appropriations bills, you can’t get on legislation. Even things that are on the hotline right now — that should be able to come out and have a straight floor vote — you can’t get out.”

The Oklahoma Republican said he’s been concerned for a while that the slow pace of judicial and executive branch nominations may elbow out individual appropriations bills.

Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, is also concerned that the slow pace of confirmations on the floor is designed to delay or hinder GOP efforts to bring up legislation.

“At some point, this will be an even bigger crisis for members to have to deal with,” the Missouri Republican said.

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August recess threat

The election-year schedule and backlog of nominations are part of the reason White House legislative affairs director Marc Short is having an “ongoing conversation” with McConnell and other Republicans about extending the Senate calendar — possibly for longer work weeks, canceling or at least shortening the four-week August recess, or both.

Short said because only nine Republican seats are up for grabs in November, compared with 24 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats, it makes sense to keep lawmakers in Washington.

“It’s to the Democrats’ advantage to get back to their states to campaign, right? So, it should be all the more reason to work with us to get nominations through,” Short said during a visit to the Capitol late last week.

The White House, Short said, doesn’t see the debate about whether to give more time to nominations or appropriations bills as an “either or” conversation. “It’s both,” he said, adding that senators can work through the weekends.

Short earlier last week also appeared at an event with GOP Sen. David Perdue of Georgia and conservative activists to push for lawmakers to remain in town to confirm nominees and pass spending bills.

“We are willing to do whatever is necessary to get these confirmations done and debate funding bills now,” said Perdue, who spearheaded an effort last year to get McConnell to shorten the August recess.

Perdue and 15 other GOP senators, including three appropriators, sent a letter to McConnell on Thursday arguing to “work nights and weekends and forgo the August recess” in order to get spending bills and nominations done in a timely manner. The letter asks McConnell to “immediately begin work on one or several consolidated appropriations bills,” with “defense priorities” addressed first.

Trump himself jumped into the fray with a weekend tweet telling senators to “get funding done before the August break, or NOT GO HOME.” Trump also urged the Senate to stay in session to work on “almost 300 nominations, worst in history.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn isn’t convinced the Senate will need to change its schedule, saying that every time Republicans threaten to keep lawmakers in Washington, “Democrats crater and then we get our work done.”

But the Texas Republican also said getting significant numbers of judges approved before the end of this Congress is at the top of the GOP’s to-do list.

“Obviously, nominations, particularly judicial nominations, are a priority because these folks will serve for 25-30 years. And given obstruction on other ordinary legislation, I think you’ll continue to see that as a priority,” Cornyn said.

Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama expects the focus on nominations will change soon, but for how long he doesn’t know. There’s also no final decision on whether fiscal 2019 spending bills will move individually, or in small groups of “minibuses.”

“The leader has said publicly and told everybody on the committee — Democrats and Republicans” that he and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer “are going to work with us to try to move a number of appropriations bills starting in June,” Shelby said.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin is optimistic the Senate will spend a significant amount of time on the spending bills.

“I wish we could get back to something like regular order,” said the Illinois Democrat, who is also the ranking member on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “I know that’s exactly what Chairman Shelby wants, so I hope he can prevail on Mitch McConnell.”

Shades of 2006

McConnell, himself a longtime appropriator, surely remembers the lessons of 2006, the last time his GOP majority found itself facing comparable midterm headwinds. That year Senate Republicans largely avoided taking up appropriations bills on the floor, figuring the time was better spent on higher-profile issues important to GOP voters than on giving Democrats a chance to nitpick vulnerable Republicans with appropriations amendments.

But the GOP lost in the 2006 midterms regardless. And McConnell and other senators who were around back then likely remember the words of then-Sen. Pete V. Domenici, who castigated the strategy of punting on appropriations bills in a blistering Dec. 6, 2006, floor speech.

“I took this job knowing full well I would have to vote to decide, to choose, and that these decisions would absolutely be second-guessed by a whole host of people. So I reject the notion that the Senate saved itself by avoiding so-called hard votes. We had not and we did not take the votes, did we? And look at the results in November,” said the New Mexico Republican, who died last year.

“If it were our Republican approach to save ourselves, we lost ourselves,” he added.

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