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Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks

The Senate is bracing for an end-of-the-year brawl over President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations 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 McConnellBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Jayapal to Dems: Ditch bipartisanship, go it alone on infrastructure The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Biden's European trip 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 CornynSenate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Rising crime rejuvenates gun control debate on campaign trail 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 CottonTom Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Cotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military Media continues to lionize Anthony Fauci, despite his damning emails 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 ShelbyThe tale of the last bipartisan unicorns The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race MORE (R-Ala.) and Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSanders won't vote for bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right McConnell warns he's willing to intervene in 2022 GOP primaries 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyHouse unveils antitrust package to rein in tech giants Iowa governor questions lack of notice on migrant children flights to Des Moines Senate crafts Pelosi alternative on drug prices 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 WarrenAdams, Garcia lead in NYC mayor's race: poll Exclusive: Democrat exploring 'patriot tax' on multimillionaires' wealth McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats 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 KavanaughSupreme Court confounding its partisan critics Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant Alyssa Milano says she could 'potentially run' for House in 2024 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 FlakeOn The Trail: Arizona is microcosm of battle for the GOP Trump looms large over fractured Arizona GOP Why Republican politicians are sticking with Trump 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) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel 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 DurbinDick DurbinBipartisan infrastructure deal takes fire from left and right Senate Judiciary begins investigation into DOJ lawmaker subpoenas Garland pledges review of DOJ policies amid controversy 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 NelsonDemings raises million after announcing Senate bid against Rubio Russia threatens to leave International Space Station program over US sanctions Nikki Fried, only statewide elected Democrat in Florida, launches challenge to DeSantis 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 GrahamSenate confirms Garland's successor to appeals court Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema GOP senators applaud Biden for global vaccine donation plans 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.