GOP eying 'blue slip' break to help Trump fill the courts
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Momentum is building in the Senate for doing away with an arcane rule that allows senators to block some of President Trump’s judicial nominees.

The “blue-slip” rule — a precedent upheld by Senate tradition — allows a home-state senator to stop a lower-court nominee by refusing to return a sheet of paper, known as a blue slip, to the Judiciary Committee.

Conservatives have clamored for months to get rid of the rule, arguing Democrats are abusing the process to block qualified nominees.

They recently gained a powerful ally: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants GOP rattled by Trump rally Third Kentucky Democrat announces challenge to McConnell MORE (R-Ky.), at least when it comes to picks for the U.S. courts of appeals. 

"My personal view is that the blue slip, with regard to circuit court appointments, ought to simply be a notification of how you’re going to vote, not the opportunity to blackball,” McConnell told The New York Times.

He added that he supports keeping the blue slip rule for district court judges, whose decisions can get appealed to the circuit court.

With Trump and congressional Republicans struggling to rack up major legislative wins — they have, so far, failed to repeal ObamaCare and tax reform is months behind schedule — the courts offer perhaps the best path for the GOP to make lasting change in the majority. 

Trump currently has 144 vacancies to fill in the federal court system, with nominees already named for 45 of those spots. The vacancies include 21 on the circuit court, which span multiple states and ranks only below the Supreme Court. 

Because the Senate's "blue slip" practice isn't a rule but a tradition enforced by the Judiciary Committee chairman, the decision on whether or not to move forward ultimately rests with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.).  But Democrats are prepared to test the issue. 

Democratic Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection Hillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid Top Democrat demands answers on election equipment vulnerabilities MORE (Ore.) and Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Senate Democrat releasing book on Trump admin's treatment of migrants at border MORE (Ore.) are pledging they will not return their slips for Ryan Bounds, Trump’s ninth circuit pick, or “any other nominee that has not been selected through our judicial process.” 

“As senators charged with the task for advice and consent in the selection of candidates, we take our responsibility to identify and recommend candidates to fill Oregon judicial vacancies very seriously,” they wrote in a letter to the White House.

Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTrump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions Al Franken: It's time to start taking Trump 'literally' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Mexican officials scramble to avoid Trump tariffs MORE (D-Minn.) is also refusing to return his blue slip for David Stras, Trump’s eighth circuit nominee.

In addition to Stras and Bounds, Democratic Sens. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Health care moves to center stage of Democratic primary fight | Sanders, Biden trade sharps jabs on Medicare for All | Senate to vote on 9/11 bill next week | Buttigieg pushes for cheaper insulin The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP MORE (Wis.), Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyDemocrats grill USDA official on relocation plans that gut research staff Trump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp MORE (Pa.) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThe Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants Biden, Harris set for second Democratic debate showdown Health care moves to center stage in Democratic primary fight MORE (Colo.) have a Trump judicial pick from their home states awaiting a hearing before the Judiciary Committee. 

And roughly seven additional circuit court seats that Trump still needs to fill come from states that have at least one Democratic senator, including Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US MORE (D-N.Y.).

Democrats have few other tools to slow down or block a judicial nominee. They did away with the 60-vote filibuster for lower-court nominees when they held the majority in 2013, and Republicans followed suit by ending the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees earlier this year.

A coalition of liberal groups is putting pressure on Democratic senators to oppose any judicial nominee from Trump, who they call “a white supremacist who has no respect for the Constitution and the rule of law.”

“Even though they do not have the numbers to block Trump’s nominees, keeping Trump from being able to fill even a portion of the total vacancies could limit the damage he inflicts on our courts. Senior members of the Judiciary Committee like Sens. Feinstein, Leahy and Klobuchar must commit to total resistance,” CREDO Action wrote in a petition call to its supporters.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTop Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations Hillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei MORE (D-Calif.) — who has stirred the left’s ire ahead of a potential 2018 reelection bid — is urging Republicans to keep the blue slip tradition.

“It’s the prerogative of home-state senators to evaluate potential federal judicial nominees and determine whether or not they are mainstream and well-suited to hold these important positions of public trust, which have real-world consequences for their constituents,” Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a recent statement.

Noting that nominees under President Obama didn’t move forward when they didn’t receive blue slips from their home state senators, Feinstein added, “I trust that this refusal to sign a blue slip will be treated the same way.”

Schumer and McConnell are expected to sit down and discuss the issue, though a Senate aide noted on Friday that the meeting hadn’t been scheduled yet.

It’s not the first time the Senate has fought over the blue-slip tradition, which dates back 100 years.

Every GOP senator, including McConnell and Grassley, sent a letter to Obama in 2009 warning that if they weren’t consulted, and didn’t approve of, nominees from their home states they wouldn't let them move forward.

“Despite press reports that the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee now may be considering changing the Committee’s practice of observing senatorial courtesy, we, as a Conference, expect it to be observed, even-handedly and regardless of party affiliation.  And we will act to preserve this principle and the rights of our colleagues if it is not,” the entire caucus wrote in the letter.

Christopher Kang, a former deputy counsel for Obama, noted in a Huffington Post op-ed that Republicans blocked 18 Obama nominees by refusing to return a blue slip, including six circuit court picks.

Grassley has, so far, not said what he will do when a home-state senator opposes a nomination. But he’s hinted that the blue-slip rule could go by the wayside, at least in same cases.

“It’s much more a White House decision on circuit judges than the district court judges,” Grassley said during an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program. “I mean, this is going to be an individual case-by-case decision, but it leads me to say that there’s going to have to be a less strict use or obligation to the blue-slip policy for circuit, because that’s the way it’s been.”

A Congressional Research Service report noted that, “since 1979, the impact of negative blue slips has varied as leadership in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary has changed.”

If Grassley ultimately does decide to move forward on the nominations being objected to by Democrats, he’ll have the support of other top GOP senators and conservatives to give him cover.

“We’ve never really had an absolute blue-slip process on circuit court judges, so if the Democrats are trying to do that, that’s wrong,” said Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump to award racing legend Roger Penske with Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators MORE (R-Utah), a former Judiciary Committee chairman.

But Hatch, as a member of the minority in 2014, also touted his protection of the “blue-slip tradition,” noting that, “not one appeals court nominee was confirmed without the support of their home-state senators.”

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP wants commitment that Trump will sign budget deal Hillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senators introduce legislation to boost cyber defense training in high school MORE (R-Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, added “there’s consultation, which is important, but we’re not going to let an individual senator reverse the outcome of the last presidential election.” 

Any changes Republicans make to the Senate’s traditions or rules while they are in the majority could come back to bite them when they are back in the minority.

Cornyn, asked if he was worried about the potential implications down the road, acknowledged it was a reality Republicans could face.   

“Well the Democrats have shown they are willing to go to extreme measures anyways,” he said, “so I wouldn’t be surprised.”