GOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump’s court picks

Republicans are playing hardball as they race to confirm President Trump’s judicial picks ahead of the midterm elections.
The tactics are the latest sign of the escalating tensions and growing polarization on judicial nominees in a Senate where emotions are still raw and bases in both parties are ginned up after the fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
In an unusual move, Republicans are holding two Judiciary Committee hearings on circuit and district court nominations even as the Senate is in recess until Nov. 13.
Only four of the committee’s 21 members attended the first meeting, held this week, where one circuit court nominee and five district court nominees faced questions. Neither Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee’s chairman, nor any of the 10 Democratic members attended the meeting.
The committee is holding a second recess hearing next week, where two circuit court nominees are tentatively scheduled to be questioned by the committee.
Republicans are shrugging off questions about the tactics, arguing if Democrats wanted to be able to question the nominees they should have planned to return to Washington for the hearings.
“This schedule was agreed to by the chairman and the ranking member, so if somebody on the Democratic side is upset they need to take it up with Sen. Feinstein. She agreed to all this, at least that’s what Sen. Grassley tells me,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), one of two senators who stayed for the entire meeting.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the panel’s ranking member, led Democrats on the committee in a failed bid to get the two hearings postponed until next month.
Instead, GOP staffers circulated talking points noting the committee has held hearings where only one senator questioned a nominee. Republicans have also accused Democrats of trying to slow-walk Trump’s nominees.
“As a result of Democratic delay tactics, there are now 154 current and future judicial vacancies, 63 of which are classified as judicial emergencies. The judiciary simply cannot afford further obstruction from your side,” Grassley added in a Monday letter to Feinstein.
Republicans are setting a record pace for the number of appeals court judges confirmed during a president’s first two years and have dedicated weeks of floor time to getting nominations through as their narrow two-seat majority has effectively sidelined items on their legislative wish list.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) hopes the tactics will pay dividends with base voters in November, and he has put the courts at the center of his midterm strategy.
“Let’s look at the Congress: two Supreme Court justices, 29 circuit judges … 84 total judges. The president is, with our Republican Senate, transforming the American court system,” McConnell told a Kentucky radio station, part of a pre-election media tour he has used to talk up the party’s ability to confirm Trump’s nominees.
He pledged at a Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday night that judges would be a top priority if Republicans hold the Senate.
“If we can hold the Senate I assure you we will complete the job of transforming the federal judiciary,” he said.
Republicans are highlighting their ability to confirm Trump’s nominees as a key reason they should keep, and potentially expand, their narrow majority.
With Democrats nixing the 60-vote filibuster for most nominations in 2013, Republicans are able to steamroll through Democratic objections and strained relations in a Senate where both parties remain frustrated over the Kavanaugh fight.
An aide for Feinstein stressed that while the Democratic senator agreed to the hearing dates, she never agreed that they would go forward if the Senate went into recess ahead of schedule.
“Senator Feinstein never agreed to hearings during an extended recess, which has never happened before and which clearly interferes with the state work period. The Judiciary Committee is the only committee holding hearings during recess. The circuit court nominee considered is controversial and deserves a full hearing while the Senate is in session,” said Ashley Schapitl, a spokeswoman for Feinstein, referring to 36-year-old circuit court nominee Allison Jones Rushing.
She also dismissed the narrative, being floated by Republicans, that the previous delays were to accommodate Feinstein.
“Historically, Judiciary Committee holds fewer hearings while a Supreme Court nominee is up and doesn’t hold any hearings for controversial nominees. The decision to postpone the September 26 hearing to October was in keeping with committee practice,” Schapitl added.
Kristine Lucius, executive vice president of policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the recess meetings “sham hearings,” and the Alliance for Justice added that holding recess hearings for lifetime appointments with only only a handful of senators is “absurd.”
But the hearings are sparking the latest round of blame-gaming between progressives and Democratic leadership, who are quick to argue that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) got played by McConnell.
“Schumer agreed to a deal with Republicans to confirm 15 conservative judges in exchange for allowing Senate Democrats to go home and campaign. As we all saw coming, the GOP lied and went back on the deal. We need new leadership,” Justice Democrats, a progressive outside group, said in a tweet.
Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice and a former Schumer staffer, added that Republicans were going to “stop at nothing to steal the courts for a generation.”
“Grassroots progressives realize it and are fighting mad. Senate Democrats better get the memo,” Fallon said on Thursday.
The blowback comes after Democrats agreed to a deal to confirm dozens of nominees, including 15 judges, in exchange for letting their vulnerable members return to the campaign trail for the final weeks before the midterm elections. The Senate was scheduled to be in town until Oct. 26, but senators left on Oct. 11.
Progressives blistered Democrats over the agreement, arguing they could have kept enough members in town to drag out the procedural hurdles on the nominations while letting their incumbents in red and purple states leave to campaign.
But Democrats argued that because they are in the minority they are effectively powerless to stop McConnell from ramming through nominations, and keeping the Senate in town would have given him the chance to set up votes on more judicial picks.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) described Schumer as being in an “impossible” position.
“Democrats are in the minority. It’s true that some of these votes could have been stalled out. That’s true,” he told The Washington Post when asked about progressive frustrations. “But at the end of the day, these Democrats were telling Schumer: Hey, we’re going to lose if we can’t go home and campaign.”
Tags Bernie Sanders Brett Kavanaugh Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump John Kennedy Judiciary Mitch McConnell Senate Trump court picks

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