Senate

GOP pushes to change Senate rules for Trump

Greg Nash

A group of Republican senators wants to press the button on a new “nuclear option” that would limit debate time on President Trump’s nominees.

The controversial move would hasten the pace of the president’s nominees getting confirmed and curtail Democratic power in the upper chamber. 

Senate leaders have twice used the nuclear option to facilitate action on nominees in recent years.

In 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stripped the minority of the power to filibuster executive branch and judicial nominees below the level of Supreme Court.

{mosads}Last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) changed the rules with a party-line vote to lower the threshold for a Supreme Court nominee from 60 votes to a simple majority.

Some Republicans say it’s time again to deploy the controversial tactic, which earned its name because it is viewed as a procedural weapon of last resort.

“It’s completely gotten out of hand,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “It’s ridiculous we have all these 30 hours of post-cloture time. It’s chewing up the clock and we can’t address the major problems facing this nation.”

“I’ve been recommending for quite some time to utilize the Harry Reid precedent to change the rules [with] 51 votes,” he added.

McConnell, however, is not a fan of this aggressive plan. He has rebuffed pressure from House Republicans and Trump to change the Senate’s rules to curtail the filibuster, and Senate colleagues describe him as an institutionalist.

Johnson owes less allegiance to McConnell than some other Republicans because the National Republican Senatorial Committee pulled ads out of his reelection race in 2016 because he was projected to lose.

He rallied to a surprising come-from-behind win over Democrat Russ Feingold and usually feels emboldened to speak his mind, even if it means contradicting his party’s leaders.

Johnson admitted that there are not yet enough Republican votes to change the rules unilaterally, as they have a narrow 51-seat majority and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is away from Washington for the foreseeable future because of health reasons. 

Some Republicans, such as Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), have stated their opposition to using the nuclear option to speed up floor business. 

Other Republicans agree with Johnson that it’s time to deploy the nuclear option if Democrats balk at changing the rules for nominees under regular order, which requires 67 or 60 votes under different scenarios.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) on Wednesday said they also support using that path if Democrats refuse to reduce the length of procedural time required for nominees.

Cruz said he “strongly” supports reducing floor time for nominees and would back the nuclear option.

Under current rules, 30 hours must elapse on the floor every time the Senate votes to end dilatory debate and advance a nominee — unless there’s unanimous consent to yield back floor time.

This forces GOP leaders to perform triage by making tough choices about what executive branch positions are important enough to deserve floor time, leaving some nominees in limbo for months.

The Trump administration has complained that more than 300 Senate-confirmed positions remain unfilled, according to GOP senators, and they’re feeling increasing pressure to do something about it.

“Thirty hours is just too much. You have cloture motion filed on a nominee and the nominee gets 98 votes and then you wait 30 hours for nothing else but to slow the process down,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who said he would have to think more about backing the nuclear option.

Republican leaders want to negotiate an agreement with Democrats to limit how much time must elapse on the Senate floor after lawmakers vote to proceed on a nominee.

They want to implement the bipartisan agreement that was in place during 2013 and 2014, which limited debate time for executive nominees below the level of the Cabinet to eight hours and for district court nominees to two hours. Nominees to the Supreme Court, appellate courts and Cabinet-level positions would still require 30 hours of post-cloture debate.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is leading the negotiations with Democrats.

“Same exact thing that was in 2013,” he said of the proposal the GOP favors.

He said the reform could be made by voting to change the Senate rules, which requires 67 votes, or by issuing a permanent standing order, which requires 60 votes.

There are 21 positions listed at the executive Cabinet level. They would still require 30 hours on the floor after the Senate votes to end dilatory debate on nominations to those posts.

Democrats, however, aren’t interested in striking a deal to speed up staffing of the Trump administration.

They say the dynamic has changed after Republicans held the seat of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia vacant for months and then changed the Senate rules to confirm conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to replace him.

Republicans say Democrats broke tradition first by using the nuclear option to eliminate filibusters on executive branch and most judicial nominees in November 2013.

Asked about reimplementing the 2013 bipartisan agreement, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, “That was before the rules changed. That’s the difference.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, did not appear optimistic for a deal when asked about her talks with Lankford but declined to go into detail.

“We’re going to continue to talk about it,” she said.

A spokesman for Schumer said 145 Trump nominees are stuck in Republican-controlled committees and nearly 60 high-level positions at the State Department lack nominees.

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short on Friday blamed Democrats for what he called “historic obstruction.”

He noted that the Senate has had 79 cloture votes on nominees in the first 14 months of the Trump administration, about five times as many as the number during the same spans of the past four administrations combined.

Often Democrats have required the full 30 hours of post-cloture debate time to elapse before allowing a final vote.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Senate GOP leader, said support for the nuclear option could pick up if Democrats refuse to speed the processing time for nominees.

“Ideally it would be the regular order, but I suppose we’ll see,” he said. “Our members would like to have a vote and see where the Democrats are.

“If they continue this practice of just dragging things out and making it really impossible to get anything done then I could see our members saying, ‘enough already.’ ”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Charles Schumer Donald Trump Harry Reid James Lankford John McCain John Thune Mitch McConnell Pat Roberts Ron Johnson Steve Daines Susan Collins Ted Cruz
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