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Democratic House Means More Time for Senate Nominations — And Another Trump SCOTUS Pick?

The Senate will still have plenty to do, even as legislation languishes with divided government

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday that he will seek re-election in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday that he will seek re-election in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is fond of saying that unlike the House, the Senate is in the “personnel business.”

That is only going to be more true in the 116th Congress, with Democrats taking control of the House and chances for legislating likely becoming fewer and further between.

Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham had argued persistently that the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of now-Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh backfired on the Democrats and gave momentum to GOP Senate candidates.

Regardless of the reasons behind the GOP’s hold on the Senate majority, the fact that the party will control the Senate for another two years means it might have the chance to consider another Supreme Court pick from President Donald Trump — should one of the current members depart during the 116th Congress.

Even ahead of Election Day, McConnell was pushing supporters to work to keep the Senate in Republican hands to continue the work with Trump to pull the federal judiciary in a more conservative direction.

“We’re going to do some more circuit judges before the end of this year,” the Kentucky Republican said at a Heritage Foundation dinner last month. “If we can hold the Senate, I assure you we will complete the job of transforming the federal judiciary with young men and women who understand what the role of a judge is.”

McConnell returned to that point Monday on a conference call organized by the Trump campaign organization, saying a Democratic Senate would put the brakes on the transformation of the courts

And now, he might well get the chance to confirm a third Trump nominee to the Supreme Court.

McConnell spent much of his October highlighting the work so far, led by the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices and 29 federal appeals court judges.

“As long as I’m the majority leader of the Senate, and I hope that’s for at least two more years, we will have reforming the judiciary with these kinds of men and women as our number one project,” McConnell said.

With Mike Braun winning the Senate election in Indiana, defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn keeping the Tennessee Senate seat in the Republican column, it became clear early on that McConnell would likely be keeping the job of majority leader.

When it comes to the legislative agenda, the new Congress will be defined by the tension between the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate. But not to be lost is the fact that McConnell himself will be in cycle for re-election back in Kentucky.

He starts the 2020 campaign, where he’s expected to share the ballot with  Trump, with some unfinished business of key interest in the commonwealth. And there are places where that might lead to common ground with House Democrats.

Take, for instance, the pending farm bill. As work has been under way to finalize a House-Senate conference agreement, it has been clear that Senate conferees from both parties have been more on the same page with House Democrats than the current GOP majority.

So if for some reason the agriculture bill cannot be finalized in the 115th Congress, it could be an early item of bipartisan agreement in 2019.

McConnell will have a similar challenge in 2019, though he may have a bit more breathing room when it comes to the effort to unite his conference next year.

With some of his more moderate members expected to be on the ballot in 2020, there may be more pressure for differentiation from Trump. Aside from nominations, one area where that comes into play may be on resolutions introduced under the Congressional Review Act.

Deploying the CRA was a favorite tactic of Republicans during the early part of the Trump administration to upend rules promulgated toward the end of the presidency of Barack Obama.

Though they are nearly certain to face defeat, Senate Democrats will be able to force floor votes on resolutions to overturn Trump administration regulations — political exercises that may carry resonance ahead of 2020.

There will be the essentials of governing to deal with, and the Senate may actually find it easier to work with the Democratic-led House on that, as well.

Senior Senate GOP appropriators have proven to be more aligned with House Democrats than the more conservative elements of the outgoing House Republican majority.

That is one area where the Senate majority and their new House counterparts may be able to find common ground.

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