Controversial Trump judicial nominee advances after two senators attend hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee quietly advanced a controversial nominee for President TrumpDonald John TrumpFamily says Trump travel ban preventing mother from seeing dying son Saudi Arabia rejects Senate position on Khashoggi killing Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation MORE on Wednesday, with two senators and no Democrats attending the hearing.

The panel held a hearing to question four nominees, including 9th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Eric Miller, who is considered controversial because the committee is moving his nomination over the objection of senators from his home state of Washington.

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Just two of the committee's 21 members, GOP Sens. Mike CrapoMichael (Mike) Dean CrapoSenators offer measure naming Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi slaying Banking panel showcases 2020 Dems On The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal | Facebook reeling after damning NYT report MORE (Idaho) and Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHatch walks back remarks that he didn't 'care' if Trump broke the law ‘It’s called transparency’ works for Trump on TV, not so much on campaign finance Hatch warns Senate 'in crisis' in farewell speech MORE (Utah), attended the approximately 40-minute hearing, where they questioned Miller and the other nominees.

Crapo, wrapping up the hearing, said senators needed to work to end the "backlog" on judicial nominations.

"The judiciary is one of the three equal branches of our government. It is so critical, and we badly need to adequately staff it and to move forward with the backlog that we have here and in terms of making sure that we fill the necessary seats," Crapo added.

Miller was asked about tribal sovereignty by Crapo, who oversaw the hearing. Hatch did not ask questions of either Miller or Bridget Bade, who has been nominated for the 9th Circuit as well, or district court nominees Karin Immergut and Richard Hertling.

"I think you're excellent choices. I commend the president for picking you. I support you fully, and we're going to do everything we can to get you through before the end of this year," Hatch told Miller and Bade.

A hearing is an initial step in the Senate's consideration of a nomination. The Judiciary Committee still needs to vote on the nominations before they can get sent to the full Senate.

It's the second hearing held by the Judiciary Committee even though the Senate is in the middle of a weeks-long recess. Last week the committee questioned six nominees with only four senators — all Republicans — attending.

The tactics highlight the importance Republicans have placed on the courts. They've set a record for the number of appeals judges confirmed during an administration's first two years and have put their ability to confirm Trump's nominees at the center of the midterm fight.

"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," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump finds himself isolated in shutdown fight Pelosi faces pressure to act on Saudi Arabia Make the First Step Act a smarter step by opening the risk assessment black box MORE (R-Ky.) told a Kentucky radio station earlier this month as part of a pre-election media tour he has used to talk up the party's ability to confirm Trump's nominees.

But Democrats and their progressive group allies have been left fuming over the tactics. The 10 Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee tried to get last week's and Wednesday's hearings delayed and have boycotted both of the hearings.

“Senate Republicans continue attempts to remake the federal judiciary in President Trump’s image while the Senate is out of session and senators are out of town. Chairman Grassley continues his assault on Senate norms," said Kristine Lucius, the executive vice president of policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, about Wednesday's hearing.

Republicans argue that Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate Dems urge Trump to continue nuclear arms control negotiations after treaty suspension Senate Intel leaders ask judge not to jail former aide amid leak investigation Dems demand Pompeo brief Congress on whether he discussed Assange with Ecuadorian official MORE (D-Calif.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking member, agreed to the hearing schedule. Feinstein's staff countered that she did not agree to hold hearings if the Senate began its pre-election recess early.

"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," Ashley Schapitl, a spokeswoman for Feinstein, told The Hill last week.

Republicans have defended the tactics with staffers for Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFive takeaways from the court decision striking down ObamaCare The Year Ahead: Tough tests loom for Trump trade agenda Senate heads toward floor fight on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman, circulating talking points around Wednesday's hearing.

Grassley's staff argued that Feinstein "did not make her agreement contingent" on the Senate being in session and that the committee has previously held hearings where only one senator questioned a nominee.

Hatch added on Wednesday that they hadn't gotten cooperation from Democrats on the committee.

"You have to give the minority a chance to be there … [but] so far we haven't had a whole lot of cooperation," Hatch said.

Wednesday's hearing comes a day after Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayVA chief gave inaccurate information during confirmation on his pro-Confederate ties VA senior adviser forced out amid concerns that he was 'getting paid to sit on his couch': report The Year Ahead: Drug pricing efforts to test bipartisanship MORE (D-Wash.) said she would not return her "blue slip" on Miller's nomination. As one of his home-state senators, she gets a piece a paper asking whether she supports his nomination.

"I am not going to be complicit in this latest rushed process to load the courts with Trump nominees in the lame duck session and I will not be returning the blue slip that signals my approval of this process," said Murray, a member of Democratic leadership.

Murray urged Republicans to delay Wednesday's hearing on Miller's nomination — a request they rejected.

Grassley in a letter to Murray, which was sent Tuesday and released Wednesday, said he believed the White House tried to consult with her on the nomination.

"It appears that the White House attempted to consult with you and Senator [Maria] Cantwell in good faith, but that effort was not reciprocated. It’s not necessary that you intend to support Mr. Miller’s ultimate confirmation for him to receive a hearing. It’s only necessary that the White House sought your input and guidance," Grassley wrote.

And Senate Republicans have warned they won't let the refusal of a home state senator to return a blue slip to stop the Senate from moving them forward.

The blue slip rule — a precedent upheld by Senate tradition — has historically allowed a home-state senator to stop a lower-court nominee by refusing to return a sheet of paper, the blue slip, to the Judiciary Committee.

But how strictly the precedent is followed is decided by the Judiciary Committee chairman — in this case, Grassley—and enforcement has varied over the years.

Senate Republicans have confirmed a handful of circuit court nominations even when one home state senator did not return their slip.

The Judiciary Committee advanced Ryan Bounds's 9th Circuit nomination to the floor even though neither home-state senator returned their blue slips. But Bounds's nomination was ultimately withdrawn when it became clear he did not have the 50 votes needed from Republicans.

Grassley defended his handling of the blue slip in his letter to Murray, saying he has "preserved" the "blue-slip tradition."

"I am much less likely to hold hearings for district court nominees who do not have two positive blue slips returned from home-state senators. I value the blue-slip tradition and have preserved it during my chairmanship. Any suggestion to the contrary is false," Grassley said.