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Senate panel spars over judges, advances GOP effort to cut nomination debate time

Party-line vote in committee could set up a contentious floor debate

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)

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee took a predictably partisan turn Wednesday when the panel voted along party lines to advance a resolution that would slash debate time for most presidential nominees.

Ranking member Amy Klobuchar led the opposition to the proposal, arguing that two hours for post-cloture debate was not enough, especially for lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

“In Minnesota, that’s about the amount of time it takes to make a hot dish,” Klobuchar said.

The Minnesota Democrat, who launched a 2020 presidential bid Sunday, was at times used as an example by Republican committee members.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a potential President Klobuchar would want to be able to staff her administration early in 2021.

“That’s really going to help me with my base,” she replied. “Thank you, Mitch.”

Rules Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri and Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford led the offering of the resolution. It would establish a standing order reducing the debate time to up to two hours after cloture has been invoked on nominees to be district judges, as well as most executive branch posts below Cabinet level.

The Rules panel reported it to the full Senate on a 10-9 vote, which likely sets up a contentious floor debate where Republicans could seek to move ahead with a “nuclear option,” or simple majority vote.

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The proposal would also allow the longer 30 hours of debate  — for Cabinet positions, some boards and appellate judges — to be equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. That could effectively reduce the time to approximately 15 hours.

More finger-pointing

During his appearance at the markup, McConnell said he was particularly concerned about the backlog of lower-level executive branch nominees. He said he had offered a package of 150 executive branch nominees for confirmation by consent to Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, and saw it rejected. 

The roster of the Rules and Administration Committee is sort of a murderer’s row of members of leadership and senior appropriators, which meant Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin was ready to respond to McConnell’s complaint.

“Senator, you know what the problem is, and was: It was a vacancy, a Democratic vacancy, on the National Labor Relations Board,” the Illinois senator said. “We’ve had this discussion with the president, have we not, just a few weeks ago in the Cabinet room when Sen. Schumer said he had tried to bend in your direction in the hopes that we could get the one Democratic nominee through.”

It was reported last week that Mark Gaston Pearce, a former Democratic NLRB chairman, was stepping aside from consideration for another term.

“There may be an opportunity to fill that vacancy — the Democratic vacancy on the National Labor Relations Board — and I would hope that we could do it with dispatch. I think it would create some goodwill that has been missing for the first two years when it comes to the sub-Cabinet nominees,” Durbin said.

“With regard to that particular nominee, the challenge was getting enough votes to pass him,” McConnell said. “The level of comity here is way out of whack, way out of whack, the administration is going to honor that agreement, but with that particular individual Sen. Schumer experienced the same thing I did with a couple of the names that I sent to President Obama.”

The involvement of an NLRB seat in the nomination wars should be no surprise. During the Obama presidency, it was the very agency that became the subject of a Supreme Court battle over the definition of a Senate recess for the purposes of making recess appointments.

The high court held that the Senate, not the president, decides when the chamber is on recess.

Reopening old wounds

Members of the Rules panel also revived their debate about which party is most responsible for that collapse of Senate comity and collegiality when it comes to nominations. Durbin and other Democrats criticized McConnell’s decision not to allow consideration of Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court seat eventually filled by Neil M. Gorsuch.

The two sides traded barbs about actions in recent years that have reduced the threshold for breaking filibusters of nominees, as well as the treatment of “blue slips” from home-state senators on judicial nominees.

Republicans criticized the number of cloture motions that McConnell has had to file to get floor votes on more routine Trump nominations.

“I can assure you, we wrote this … with the idea in mind of what kind of protection we would want if we were in the minority,” Blunt said as he opened the markup. “It’s my view and Sen. Lankford’s view and hopefully the view of a majority of my colleagues here today that presidents deserve to have their teams in place. It’s that simple. That’s what this does, and it applies to whatever party occupies the White House.”

“At a time of blistering rhetoric, anger and divisiveness, this is no time to cede this chamber’s ability to do its due diligence by removing the guardrails that help ensure judicial nominees have the qualifications for lifetime appointments to the federal bench,” Klobuchar said in her opening remarks. “The Senate’s constitutional responsibility of ‘advice and consent’ is too important to turn into a mere rubber stamp.”

Aside from the predictable partisan debate, the panel also backed by voice vote updated committee rules, making minor changes to the timeline and method for filing and circulating amendments during committee meetings. It also backed, as amended, the omnibus funding resolution that provides budgets for Senate committees to conduct business.

Blunt said there would be a “small increase to committee funding.”