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Rao nomination advances amid pressure on freshman senator

Missouri’s Josh Hawley felt the full force of his party’s judicial confirmation machine

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In the days before the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Neomi Rao’s nomination to the federal appeals court in Washington, Missouri Republican freshman Josh Hawley felt the full pressure of his party’s judicial confirmation machine.

“I know that there are some inside this building, and outside of it, who would prefer that I do as I’m instructed and go along to get along,” Hawley said before the committee’s Thursday vote. “And I’m sorry to disappoint them, but that is not going to happen.”

Hawley ultimately joined his Republican colleagues to advance Rao to the Senate floor on a 12-10 vote along party lines, citing a second private meeting Wednesday where Rao addressed his concerns about her approach to some legal questions at the center of the Supreme Court’s rulings on abortion rights.

But prior to the vote, Hawley’s GOP colleagues on the committee condemned the friendly fire from other Republicans and outside groups just because a senator sought more information about a nominee’s views.

“The idea that people think they can pummel a senator on this committee into keeping his or her mouth shut I think is a mistake,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. He called the pressure campaign Hawley endured wrong, arrogant and “misinformed.”

Conservatives in large part back Rao because of her approach to the administrative state, the same thing that Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and other Democratic members of the committee cite in part when they oppose her nomination.

Rao, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who currently plays a key role in the White House’s efforts to roll back federal regulations, would have a seat on the influential federal court that hears the nation’s most important regulatory cases.

Feinstein on Thursday said Rao has a “troubling and aggressive record” that includes work to weaken fuel economy standards, repeal clean power plan regulations and reverse actions to address racial and gender pay discrimination.

But without Hawley’s support, Rao’s nomination couldn’t get reported to the floor favorably, only without a recommendation as an 11-11 tie. His concerns were leaked to news outlet Axios, which published an article Sunday night.

Attack machine

The Judicial Crisis Network accused Hawley of “already acting like Claire McCaskill when it comes to judges,” referring to the Democratic senator Hawley defeated in November, and said it planned a $500,000 advertisement campaign in his home state. A Wall Street Journal editorial Monday took a shot at “Josh Hawley’s Bad Judgment.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky met with him, which The Washington Post characterized as Hawley getting “upbraided” over the Rao nomination. A Koch-funded group, Americans for Prosperity, urged him to vote yes. The flood of Rao supporters Hawley spoke with included Justice Thomas.

Hawley, 39, stood firm and fought back. He sent a letter to Rao detailing his concerns and then met with her Wednesday. “News flash for the DC Establishment: I’m not going to stop asking judicial nominees whether they will follow the Constitution. It’s my job,” Hawley tweeted Wednesday, along with a link to his op-ed published in The Federalist.

And on Thursday, Hawley said his support of Rao was based on her views, not pledges on issues. A floor vote on Rao has not been scheduled. Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said that Hawley was doing his job.

“The bottom line is the committee is here for a purpose, the system is definitely broken, I don’t know if it can ever be fixed,” the South Carolina Republican said of the judicial confirmation process. “What Sen. Hawley tried to do is the solution, not the problem.”

Sen. John Kennedy, another first-term senator, called it “bullying efforts” by outside interest groups, and “the obviously organized effort by some to impose their will on members of this committee, and I’m getting a little bit tired of it.”

The Louisiana Republican recounted a similar experience. He became the first Republican to vote against a Trump judicial nominee in 2017. He cast a “no” vote on Gregory Katsas, a former White House lawyer who worked on some regulatory issues, for a spot on the D.C. Circuit, arguing there was a conflict of interest that at the time he said, “a first-year law student would see.”

On Thursday, Kennedy recalled how people came to his office afterward and talked about campaign contributions, and how there were “threats made.”

Hawley, in the hallway after the vote, said he won’t back down for doing the job Missouri voters sent him to do.

“Some people have to learn that the hard way,” Hawley said. “People are welcome to make whatever threats they want, but I think they’ll learn that I don’t respond to threats.”

The committee also advanced three nominees on voice votes: Aditya Bamzai and Travis LeBlanc to be members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, and Drew Wrigley to be U.S. attorney for the District of North Dakota.

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Photos of the week ending December 8, 2023