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 cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment 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 McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund 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.

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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 CornynTrump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Overnight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing 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 CottonGOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' GOP senator: Unprovoked attacks on oil tankers 'warrant a retaliatory military strike' Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales 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.

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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 ShelbyGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill MORE (R-Ala.) and Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneNew push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road Trump's border funding comes back from the dead Public policy expert: US has become 'outlier' on immigration practices 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 GrassleyOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill 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 Ann WarrenBiden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Biden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Trump steadfast in denials as support for impeachment grows 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 KavanaughAnticipation builds for final Supreme Court rulings Anticipation builds for final Supreme Court rulings Trump throws support behind 'no brainer' measure to ban burning of American flag 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 FlakeDemocrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump Amash gets standing ovation at first town hall after calling for Trump's impeachment 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) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump 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 DurbinElection security bills face GOP buzzsaw Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle 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 NelsonHow Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA Republicans amp up attacks on Tlaib's Holocaust comments The muscle for digital payment 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 GrahamTrump wishes 'Happy Father's Day to all,' including 'worst and most vicious critics' Trump wishes 'Happy Father's Day to all,' including 'worst and most vicious critics' Election security bills face GOP buzzsaw 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.