Senate Republicans threaten rules change to clear Trump nominees

Senate Republicans threaten rules change to clear Trump nominees
© Camille Fine

Republicans are renewing their threat to change the Senate's rules as they eye speeding up the confirmation process for President Trump's nominees.

GOP senators want to shrink the amount of debate time needed to confirm hundreds of the president's picks, arguing Democrats are abusing the rules to slow-walk nominees and the GOP agenda.

"I believe it is time to change the rules of the Senate. To change the rules so that President Trump can get his team in place," Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Senators highlight threat from invasive species MORE (R-Wyo.) told reporters.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean Blunt‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration The border deal: What made it in, what got left out MORE (R-Mo.), who like Barrasso is a member of GOP leadership, added that he was "fully supportive" of changing the rules "if the rules are being abused."

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Republicans for months have privately discussed curbing the amount of debate time needed to confirm non-Cabinet nominees.

But the latest push comes amid a fight over circuit court nominees and growing pressure from conservatives to approve Trump's judicial picks as quickly as possible.

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

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPoll shows competitive matchup if O’Rourke ran for Senate again On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week How the border deal came together MORE (R-Texas) said Republicans should go through the committee process first, but noted they have options if Democrats wouldn't go along with their effort. 

"I think the appropriate thing [is] to try to do it through regular order, first through the Rules Committee, to see how far that goes. ... Failing that, then there are procedures that are available to change the Senate rules post-cloture," he said.

Trump has had 177 nominations confirmed, with another 228 stuck in the legislative pipeline, according to a tracker by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. 

While administration has been slow to fill some positions, Trump has almost 200 fewer nominees confirmed compared to President Obama at the same point and is lagging behind President George W. Bush by more than 210.

Republicans could go "nuclear" by changing the Senate's rules through a simple majority, but would have little room for error, with some GOP senators saying earlier this year they don't favor additional changes.

None of the senators outlined a timeline on Tuesday for when, or if, they expected a move to try to change the rules.

"I think the delays post-cloture that have been employed are just simply ridiculous," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Green New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters when asked about a potential rules change.

Currently, a nomination has to have an additional 30 hours of debate time after clearing an initial procedural hurdle. The requirement allows opponents to stretch out consideration of one pick for days if they drag out the Senate rulebook. 

McConnell noted that Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordGOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees GOP senator calls Omar's apology 'entirely appropriate' New battle lines in war over Trump’s judicial picks MORE (R-Okla.) is the "point person" as Republicans consider the change.

Lankford wants to reduce the amount of debate time from 30 hours down to eight hours after a nominee clears an initial hurdle showing they have the 50 votes to be approved.

The proposal would be similar to a provision from a 2013 resolution on limiting debate for most nominations.

But getting a deal on the Senate's rules appears to have gotten harder in the wake of the 2013 decision by Democrats to get rid of the 60-vote filibuster for most nominations. Republicans, in turn, nixed the same 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees earlier this year so they could confirm Neil Gorsuch.

McConnell argued that Lankford was talking with Democrats and that "a lot of them feel the same way" about trying to find a way to speed up the consideration of nominations.

"There may be a possibility to adjust the post-cloture time on the executive calendar in a way more consistent with the Senate and the administration getting its positions filled in a timely fashion," he said.

But Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerNational emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win House Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration Mandatory E-Verify: The other border wall MORE (D-N.Y.) quickly accused Republicans of flip-flopping after they used the Senate's rulebook to slow down or block Obama nominees.

"Sen. McConnell does not come to the court with clean hands on these issues," Schumer told reporters. "He delayed and blocked so many of Obama's nominees."