GOP faces internal battle over changing Senate rules

Senate Republicans are battling over whether to use the so-called nuclear option to speed up consideration of President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE’s nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE (R-Ky.) is under pressure from conservative colleagues and outside groups to change the Senate’s rules to ensure a quicker pace on Trump’s court picks.

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Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump administration grants funding extension for Texas testing sites Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill banning federal government use of facial recognition tech | House lawmakers roll out legislation to establish national cyber director | Top federal IT official to step down GOP lawmakers join social media app billed as alternative to Big Tech MORE (R-Texas), Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesTrump nominee faces Senate hurdles to securing public lands post Political establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme Lincoln Project releases new pro-Biden ad in swing states MORE (R-Mont.) and Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonCongress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE (R-Wis.) all want to change the rules to a simple majority vote — a tactic known as the “nuclear option” because it is so controversial.

But moderates such as Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenators will have access to intelligence on Russian bounties on US troops Overnight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police MORE (R-Alaska) aren’t comfortable with using the maneuver because it will further inflame partisan passions in the chamber.

“If we’re going to change the rules, I want to be able to change the rules in the right way,” she told The Hill, expressing her preference for a bipartisan vote.

She said muscling through the changes over Democratic objections will just lead Democrats to do the same thing when they have the Senate majority.

“When we try to muscle things through, then you get in the position when the shoe’s on the other foot, when the other side’s in charge, we try to change it again, try to muscle it through on that side,” she said. 

Murkowski is one of at least two Senate Republicans opposed to going nuclear.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCongress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE (R-Maine) told The Hill last year that she did not support the rules change and has voiced opposition to it within the GOP conference.

Other Republicans, however, are losing patience.

“We continue to witness historic obstruction by Senate Democrats when it comes to funding the government and confirming nominations,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).

Perdue noted on Friday that there are only 71 working days left in the fiscal year — and only 43 excluding Mondays and Fridays, when the Senate rarely works full days.

Perdue said the Senate should start working “around the clock” to catch up on passing spending bills and “break through the backlog of confirmations.”

“We need to speed up the process,” he said.

The rules are normally changed by a two-thirds vote of the entire chamber or by issuing a standing order, with 60 votes. Either way, rules and precedent changes traditionally require bipartisanship.

The nuclear option requires a simple majority vote, but with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainJuan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden Democrats lead in three battleground Senate races: poll Republican Scott Taylor wins Virginia primary, to face Elaine Luria in rematch MORE (R-Ariz.) at home in Arizona battling cancer, Republicans have a razor-thin majority of 50-49.

They cannot afford a single defection on an attempt to change the rules unilaterally.

Outside conservative groups are gearing up for a battle over Trump’s nominees.

The Judicial Crisis Network on Thursday launched a million-dollar television and digital advertising campaign targeting Senate Democrats for slow-walking Trump’s judicial nominees.

Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director, said if Democrats refuse to vote to limit debate time for nominees, “then the level of obstruction has become such that they would need to change the rules with 51 votes.”

“We’ve gone from 108 judicial vacancies when Trump took office to 180 and that’s shocking,” she added.

Severino declined to say, however, whether her group would run ads targeting Murkowski and other Republicans who balk at using the nuclear option.

A second Republican strategist predicted that moderate GOP senators will be hit by pressure ads from conservative groups.

“My understanding is that most of the members are ready to do it and there’s some question of a couple holdouts,” the strategist said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal conference deliberations.

“McConnell has to decide he needs to do it and make his case to the holdouts,” the source added.

If Murkowski and Collins resist the leadership’s push to employ the nuclear option, the GOP strategist said groups would try to persuade them privately before resorting to public pressure tactics.

McConnell is racing to confirm as many judges as he can before the end of the year.

He set up procedural votes on six circuit court nominees before Congress left for a weeklong early May recess.

The problem he faces is that Senate rules require up to 30 hours of debate to lapse on the floor after members vote on cloture, the motion that sets up a final vote on a nominee.

Republicans have proposed reinstating a rule from 2013 that limits debate on a District Court judge to two hours, debate for most other nominees to eight hours, and keeps the 30-hour debate limit for Supreme Court, circuit court and Cabinet nominees.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday MORE (D-N.Y.), however, isn’t going along with it. He says things have changed too much since both parties agreed to limit debate time for nominees at the start of the 113th Congress.

Schumer argued in a floor speech last month that Republicans had already taken “brazen steps this Congress to limit minority rights on nominations” by using the nuclear option in April of 2017 to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

He also cited McConnell’s decision in 2016 to refuse a Judiciary Committee hearing or floor vote for Judge Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandMcConnell easily wins Kentucky Senate primary Don't mess with the Supreme Court Graham on potential Supreme Court vacancy: 'This would be a different circumstance' than Merrick Garland MORE, former President Obama’s choice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“It takes a lot of gall to complain about obstruction when Leader McConnell opened the gates to obstruction, made obstruction his watchword when he did what he did to Merrick Garland,” Schumer fumed.