Republicans considering broader change to Senate rules
Republicans are discussing making an additional change to the Senate’s rules to more quickly confirm President Trump’s nominees.
The change is separate from an expected vote Thursday that would prevent Democrats from using a filibuster to block Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch.
The additional change under consideration would affect hundreds of Trump nominations.
It would reduce debate time after a nominee clears an initial procedural hurdle from 30 hours to eight hours, greatly reducing how long the Senate would need to confirm Trump nominees.
John Cornyn (Texas) — the Senate’s No. 2 Republican — said the talks were aimed at finding ways to speed up the consideration of Trump’s non-Cabinet selections.
“Basically, there’s been some discussion on whether or not we ought to reinstitute the standing order that limited post-cloture time,” he said. “Basically, the idea is to expedite sub-Cabinet nominees.”
The latest round of discussions comes after Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) pitched the change to his colleagues during a closed-door caucus lunch on Tuesday.
The proposal 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.
Trump still needs to fill more than 500 senior positions, according to the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post, and a total of 1,200 nominees need Senate confirmation.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) hedged on whether Republicans will ultimately make the change.
“I thought … it was unfortunate we hadn’t maintained that standing order,” he said. “But I don’t know if we will get back to it or not.”
He added that currently, when Democrats force the full 30 hours of debate, it “is more often than not quorum call,” meaning no senator is speaking from the Senate floor.
“So it’s purely a delaying tactic when the outcome is understood,” he said. “[The outcome has] been understood on all these other nominations since Jan. 20, and it hasn’t been used to speed things up.”
Democrats don’t always try to enforce the 30-hour rule.
On Tuesday, for example, the Senate approved Elaine Duke to be the deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security without needing do take the procedural vote. It also held a confirmation vote on Energy Secretary Rick Perry earlier this year within hours of the initial vote to end debate.
But Democrats also forced the Senate into multiple all-night sessions earlier this year over Trump’s more controversial Cabinet nominees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is considered a Senate traditionalist, said Wednesday that he could support the rule change but wouldn’t demand it.
“I don’t know that it’s necessary to keep that alive,” he said, referring to the 30-hour rule. “I can live with it … but I can also live without it.”
Asked if he would support the proposal, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he didn’t have any information on that.
Under the rule change, a nominee would still need to overcome an initial procedural hurdle to get to a final vote.
The change, however, would only allow eight hours of debate before the final vote, which would only require a simple majority for confirmation.
Republicans now hold 52 seats in the Senate.
Cornyn said Republicans are considering the change since once a nominee gets to 51 votes, “you know what the outcome is going to be,” and any further debate is only a stalling tactic.
“This just eats up floor time, and it makes it impossible for us to get to legislation,” he said.
Senators previously formed a task force in 2015 to look into changing the Senate’s filibuster rules, including looking at reducing the amount of time between a vote to end debate on a nominee and a final confirmation vote.
But the new conversation comes as Senate Republicans prepare to change the Senate’s rules on Thursday if Democrats block Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation.
If Republicans go “nuclear” to confirm Gorsuch, as the rule change is often called, future Supreme Court nominees could clear the Senate by a simple majority vote instead of needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
Cornyn signaled that broader rule changes were part of a long-running conversation among senators, saying, “We’ve been discussing that ever since 2013, off and on.”
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.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), asked if he supported curbing debate time, quickly fired back: “No.”
“I do not agree, but it is part of the slippery slope that we’re on,” he said. “I don’t believe we ought to keep changing the rules just because we’re in the majority.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she also isn’t supportive of making additional rule changes.
Asked if she has voiced her opposition to the GOP caucus, she added, “I have.”
Updated at 8:10 p.m.