Senate

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 Trump’s nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (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.

{mosads}

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Ron Johnson (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 Murkowski (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 Collins (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 McCain (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 Schumer (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 Garland, 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. 

Tags Charles Schumer Donald Trump John McCain Judicial nominations Lisa Murkowski Merrick Garland Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Senate rules Steve Daines Susan Collins Ted Cruz
See all Hill.TV See all Video