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Feeling heat from the left, Dems reject judges deal
Senate Democrats said Wednesday that they will reject any end-of-the-year deal on judicial nominations, signaling they'll toe a tougher line on court appointments amid heavy pressure from the left.
Senate leaders usually agree to a package of judicial and executive nominees before a major holiday recess. Judicial nominees, in particular, have been a top priority of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who views them as the party's best chance to shape the political leaning of the country's courts for decades.
But Schumer has faced increasing pressure to crack down on Trump's picks, with progressives accusing Senate Democrats of not doing everything in their power to block or at least slow the nominees from being confirmed to lifetime appointments.
After a GOP senator said McConnell and Schumer were discussing a nominations package, Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice and a former Schumer staffer, reacted by tweeting: "WTF."
A Senate Democratic aide said Wednesday that Schumer would not agree to approve the final slate of judicial nominees as the Senate prepares to wrap up its work for the year.
Progressives skewered Schumer for agreeing to two previous deals this year, one in August and the other in October, when he signed off on a group of court picks in exchange for letting vulnerable incumbents head back to their home states to campaign before the November midterm election.
But he was cagey earlier this week when asked about judicial nominees, declining twice during Tuesday's press conference to discuss if he was willing to work on an agreement with McConnell.
"Our job right now is to get the government funded without a wall," Schumer told reporters. "We have had no discussion about judges. None."
After Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters that the topic came up during a closed-door meeting, a spokesman for Schumer quickly pushed back saying there hadn't been any talks with McConnell about judges.
Progressives have been seething for months over Senate Democrats handling of Trump's court picks. Though Democrats can't block nominations on their own - they got rid of the 60-vote filibuster for most nominee in 2013 - activists want them to use the chamber's rulebook to drag out any nomination, which, they argue, would result in fewer of Trump's picks being confirmed.
Democrats say a recent court ruling strengthens their case. U.S. District Court Judge Reed O'Connor, a Texas-based judge, struck down ObamaCare injecting fresh uncertainty into a key Democratic legacy item. O'Connor was confirmed by a vote vote in 2007 - when Democrats held the majority.
Schumer brushed off questions about whether senators should have let O'Connor be confirmed so easily, telling NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday that senators couldn't predict how a district judge would rule more than a decade after his nomination was before the Senate.
"There was no deal, I don't think, on this judge. He was a nominee to the district court. No one brought up anything. No one knew how he'd rule in the future. And you know, it's an awful ruling. Let's make no mistake about it," Schumer said Sunday on "Meet the Press."
But progressive activists believe O'Connor underscores their point about fighting each of the president's court picks and that Democrats should be in no mood for a year-end deal on judges.
"Especially in light of the Texas judge's ruling last week ruling ObamaCare unconstitutional, it would be insane to continue to give a free pass to lower-court judges that are ideologically extreme," Fallon said.
Activists immediately seized on Schumer's decision to block the end-of-year judges package as evidence that the left can sway him on issues important to the base.
Josh Nelson, a co-director of Credo Action, said they were "surprised" and "pleased" by Schumer's decision, adding that they had "not seen much of an inclination" from Schumer to play hardball previously on judicial picks.
"Schumer appears to have woken from his slumber," Nelson said. "As the recent Affordable Care Act decision in Texas made all too clear, the stakes are too high for Democrats to continue rubber-stamping Trump's judicial nominees."
Any nominees who aren't confirmed by the Senate this year will have to be renominated in the next Congress.
McConnell told reporters that he planned to negotiate a package with Schumer, saying, "We have a lot of them stacked up and we'll be talking about putting trying to put together some kind of package on both executive branch nominations and judicial nominations."
Republicans touted judicial nominees as one of the main reasons they should keep control of the Senate heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
In addition to confirming two Supreme Court nominees and solidifying its conservative majority, they've set a record for the number of appeals judges confirmed during a president's first two years.
There are currently 31 judicial nominees ready for action on the Senate floor.
Senate GOP leaders predicted Wednesday that Democrats could be posturing to try to get some of their own picks cleared by the end of the year.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 GOP senator, said even though Democrats were objecting to nominations, he "assumed" there would be a package that gets approved "at some point" before the Senate finishes its work for the year.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), McConnell's No. 2, said Democrats want to get a National Labor Relations Board pick through. A spokesman for Schumer didn't respond to a request for comment about whether he would agree to move executive branch picks.
"That's their current posture," Cornyn said when asked about Schumer refusing to move court picks. "I think nothing is final around here until it's final."
But backing down from blocking a judicial nominations package would spark fierce and quick condemnation from progressives, who are already skeptical of Schumer.
Nelson said if Schumer backed down it would be a "bitter pill to swallow" for progressives.
"We know from experience that Chuck Schumer going back on his word and caving is always possible," he added.