GOP senators pitch rules change amid nominations backlog

A pair of GOP senators are pushing to change the Senate's rules to allow President Trump's nominees to more quickly clear the Senate amid growing frustration.

GOP Sens. James Lankford (Okla.) and Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonPelosi: Dropping 9/11-style Jan. 6 commission an 'option' amid opposition Wisconsin state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski launches Senate bid Biden picks vocal Trump critics to lead immigration agencies MORE (Wis.) want to curb the amount of debate time required for most of the president's nominees after they clear an initial hurdle, which is currently capped at 30 hours.

Under Lankford's proposal, which he pitched during a closed-door conference meeting earlier this year, debate time would be limited to 8 hours for non-Cabinet nominations.

Johnson's measure would go even further limiting debate on the Senate floor to 2 hours.

ADVERTISEMENT

The changes would affect hundreds of Trump nominations currently in the Senate pipeline, in addition to the hundreds of nominees the administration still needs to make.

It would greatly limit the amount of time it takes to vote on a single nominee, where Democrats can currently use the Senate's rulebook to drag out a nomination for days.

"We can be deliberative and productive at the same time, but that will require fundamental changes in the rule, not eliminating the filibuster entirely," Lankford wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday.

The renewed effort comes as GOP senators are growing increasingly frustrated by Democratic tactics to slow down Trump's nominees amid a monthslong fight over repealing ObamaCare.

"With regard to nominations, the obstruction by the Democrats as part of this resistance movement has actually reached historic proportions," Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate GOP to face off over earmarks next week Biden outreach on infrastructure met with Republican skepticism Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye passage of infrastructure bill; health experts warn of fourth coronavirus wave MORE (R-Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership, told reporters during a weekly press conference.

Democrats don't always slow walk nominations and require the full debate time. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPew poll: 50 percent approve of Democrats in Congress Pelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Progressives put Democrats on defense MORE (R-Ky.) are currently negotiating a package of nominations that would be cleared before they leave for the August recess.

In addition to curbing debate time, Lankford is proposing lowering the threshold for breaking a Democratic filibuster on starting debate on legislation from 60 votes to a simple majority.

"We should change this rule to allow the majority party to open debate, while protecting the minority party by keeping the threshold to end debate at 60," he wrote.

Trump is urging senators to get rid of the 60-vote legislative filibuster, a move GOP leadership has repeatedly shot down.

Republicans already went "nuclear" this year to lower the 60-vote procedural hurdle for Supreme Court nominations to a simple majority. 

Leadership could face an uphill battle in convincing the GOP conference to agree to further change the rules.

If Republicans want to make additional changes to the rules — without going nuclear for a second time — they would need to win over the support of roughly 15 Democrats to get the two-thirds vote normally required.

If Republicans try to go it alone, they would face little room for error to force through a broader change. With 52 seats and Vice President Pence as a tie-breaker, they could only afford to lose two senators. 

GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsModerates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms Mallory to lead White House environment council | US emissions dropped 1.7 percent in 2019 | Interior further delays Trump rule that would make drillers pay less to feds Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle MORE (Maine) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCongress brings back corrupt, costly, and inequitably earmarks Trump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Biden, lawmakers start down a road with infrastructure MORE (Ariz.) both voiced opposition earlier this year to cutting back on debate time after Lankford pitched his idea in a closed-door caucus meeting. 

“I do not agree, but it is part of the slippery slope that we’re on,” McCain said at the time. “I don’t believe we ought to keep changing the rules just because we’re in the majority.”

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP to face off over earmarks next week Biden outreach on infrastructure met with Republican skepticism McConnell seeks to end feud with Trump MORE (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, said on Tuesday that he was open to some rules changes. 

"I'm actually open to changing some of [that] ... with regard to the motion to proceed and post cloture time on some of these noms," he said.  "I think those actually make sense."

But asked about how leadership wins over reluctant GOP senators, he responded: "Good question." 

Lankford's push to limit nomination debate to 8 hours would be similar to a provision from a 2013 resolution on limiting debate for most nominations.

The 2013 measure passed the Senate by a vote of 78-16 but only governed the rules for the 113th Congress. Democrats at the time held the majority in the Senate.

That change included an exemption for “executive schedule I” nominations, which include department secretaries and other top positions such as the director of the Office of Management and Budget and federal judges.

Democrats, led by then-Majority Leader Sen. Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring Biden to tap Erika Moritsugu as new Asian American and Pacific Islander liaison White House races clock to beat GOP attacks MORE (Nev.), previously went nuclear to lower the procedural threshold for most nominations to a simple majority.

Johnson said Republicans could use the "Reid precedent" to make further changes to the rules without any Democratic support. 

"For my Republican colleagues who might resist such a change in the Senate rules, let me remind everyone that the nuclear option ... has already been deployed by former Senate majority leader Harry Reid," he wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. 

Of 575 "key positions" tracked by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, the Trump administration hasn't formally nominated someone for 355.

In total, there are 198 nominations currently working their way through the Senate, according to the tracker.