Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks

The Senate is bracing for an end-of-the-year brawl over President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE's judicial nominations.

Republicans view filling the lifetime court seats as their top priority and are expected to confirm as many nominees as possible before the Senate adjourns for the year, infuriating Democrats and their allies who are powerless to stop Trump’s picks.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans 13 things to know for today about coronavirus MORE (R-Ky.) is already teeing up votes for two nominations — Jonathan Kobes to be an 8th Circuit Court judge and Thomas Farr to be a district court judge — for when senators return from their Thanksgiving recess.

ADVERTISEMENT

And Republicans expect McConnell to barrel through more nominations before Dec. 14, the chamber’s target date to wrap up their work for the year.

“That’s Sen. McConnell’s No. 1 priority is to continue to move judges,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senator: National shelter-in-place order would be an 'overreaction' Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Cuban says he'd spank daughter if she was partying during coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Texas), the second-ranking Republican.

There are 35 judicial nominees available for votes on the Senate calendar, leaving more nominations than days left in the Senate’s work schedule to confirm the picks.

McConnell has pledged that he will move each of Trump’s nominees who are out of committee by the end of the year. If he's going to make good on that plan, he'll either need a final nominations package or keep the Senate in session through the holidays.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonTrump's ambitious infrastructure vision faces Senate GOP roadblock  GOP lawmaker touts bill prohibiting purchases of drugs made in China Wisconsin Republican says US must not rely on China for critical supplies MORE (R-Ark.) said McConnell has pledged he won’t leave any court nominees behind, adding that it was up to Democrats to determine when they wanted to leave town.

“It’s really up to them whether they want to confirm those on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, or whether they want to confirm them earlier in December by yielding back the time,” Cotton told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

ADVERTISEMENT

Republicans have been confirming Trump’s judicial nominees at a rapid clip, setting a record for the number of appeals judges confirmed during the first two years of an administration.

McConnell recently touted the record number of circuit judges at the Federalist Society’s Antonin Scalia Memorial Dinner, adding that “there will be more before the end of this current Congress.”

Though Republicans have the first unified GOP government in a decade, McConnell says he views judicial nominations as the party’s best chance of having a long-term impact on the direction of the country.

Underscoring the importance on the nominations, the issue came up during a recent White House meeting between Trump, McConnell, Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyFive things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Coronavirus bill includes more than billion in SNAP funding MORE (R-Ala.) and Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump's magical thinking won't stop the coronavirus pandemic Lawmakers brace for more coronavirus legislation after trillion bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senate overcomes hurdles, passes massive coronavirus bill MORE (R-S.D.) to discuss the end-of-the-year agenda.

“McConnell discussed that that was one of his priorities and how important it was,” Shelby said after the meeting.

The GOP’s hardball tactics have infuriated Democrats and their allies, who cannot stop Trump’s picks without help from Republicans.

People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker called Kobes and Farr the latest examples of Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyLawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors Pelosi floats undoing SALT deduction cap in next coronavirus bill Democrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus MORE (R-Iowa) and McConnell's “reckless and irresponsible approach to rubber stamping Trump’s dangerous judicial nominations,” adding that the two senators “have debased the Senate in pursuit of their ultra-partisan agenda.”

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Democratic senators want probe into change of national stockpile description Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE (D-Mass.) seized on McConnell’s decision to tee up Farr’s nomination, saying he was making a “last-ditch effort” and warning that Farr, if confirmed, will “keep working to disenfranchise African Americans and communities of color.”

Tensions have been running high for months over judicial nominations, with Republicans accusing Democrats of “obstruction” and Democrats arguing McConnell and Grassley are destroying Senate norms in order to fill the courts with conservative judges.

The frustrations boiled over during Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump nominates former Kavanaugh clerk for influential appeals court Coronavirus isn't the only reason Congress should spend less time in DC Progressives urge Democrats to hear from federal judge deeply critical of Roberts, conservatives MORE’s confirmation fight, with Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) acknowledging that relations on the Judiciary Committee are still “a little tense.”

But Democrats are powerless to stop Trump’s nominees on their own after they went nuclear in 2013 and lowered the 60-vote filibuster for most nominations to a simple majority. Republicans followed suit in 2017 and nixed the 60-vote hurdle for Supreme Court picks.

In a further blow to Democrats, Grassley is moving circuit court nominees over the objection of home-state senators. The Senate has confirmed nominees even though one home-state senator didn’t return their blue slip, a sheet of paper that indicates if they support the nomination.

But if Republicans want to max out the number of judicial nominees they could confirm they’ll need to defuse a fight with a member of their own party: Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeMcSally campaign to suspend TV ads, canvassing amid pandemic Coronavirus isn't the only reason Congress should spend less time in DC Trump Jr. says he inherited 'Tourette's of the thumbs' from his father MORE (Ariz.).

Flake, who is retiring in January, is refusing to support judicial nominees until he gets a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE.

“The hope here is that we bring this to a vote and that we can approve some more judges,” Flake said. “There’s a circuit court judge that I helped get nominated that we would like to see on the 9th Circuit. She’s noncontroversial. There are other noncontroversial judges that we ought to be moving through, but the priority here has to be to protect the special counsel.”

No Republicans have said that they will help Flake block nominations on the Senate floor, but the party holds an 11-10 majority on Judiciary Committee meaning controversial nominations, which are regularly passed along party lines, will be blocked at committee level until Republicans can appease Flake or win over a Democrat.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the panel, praised Flake’s tactics, saying he has “struck at the heart of the Republican agenda.”

“They are more determined to approve judges than anything else that they’re working on,” Durbin said.

Republicans discussed how to break Flake’s impasse during their final closed-door caucus lunch before the Thanksgiving recess, but didn’t reach a decision. A GOP senator suggested giving him a symbolic, nonbinding “sense of the Senate” vote, but Flake rejected that offer.

It’s not the first time Flake has issued an ultimatum over judicial nominations. He briefly opposed circuit court picks over Trump’s tariff policy but dropped his opposition when he got a procedural vote related to trade policy.

With Flake on his way out, McConnell could simply wait until next year. If a nominee isn’t confirmed by the end of the year, the White House needs to renominate that person — a timely, but not fatal, process.

Republicans will have anywhere from a 52- to 53-seat majority next year. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) clinched a victory over Democratic Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonLobbying world The most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world MORE on Sunday. In Mississippi, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and Mike Espy (D) are battling in a runoff scheduled for Nov. 27.

McConnell noted during the Federalist Society event that the Senate was in the “personnel business” and that Republicans would have an “enhanced majority” to confirm judges next year.

“The American people have smiled on the Senate … we’re going to keep doing it for two more years,” he said.

And Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham asks colleagues to support call for China to close wet markets Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Trump says he's considering restricting travel to coronavirus 'hot spots' MORE (R-S.C.), who’s expected to take over as Judiciary Committee chairman next year, pledged that he would work to confirm conservative judges if colleagues pick him to lead the panel.

“If I am fortunate enough to be selected by my colleagues to serve as chairman, I will push for the appointment and Senate confirmation of highly qualified conservative judges to the federal bench,” Graham said.