New battle lines in war over Trump’s judicial picks

The Senate is adding new fuel to the fire in its long-running feud over President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE’s judicial nominations.

The battle intensified this past week, with multiple fault lines. Republicans moved forward with more than 40 picks, including several circuit nominees who were not supported by home-state senators.

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GOP senators are also expected to advance a rules change Wednesday that would cut down on the amount of time it takes to confirm many of Trump’s nominees, including district judges.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy On The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments MORE (R-Ky.) and other Republicans view judicial nominations as a top priority and their best shot at leaving a long-term impact on the direction of the country. The GOP-controlled Senate confirmed a record number of circuit court picks during Trump’s first two years in office.

Democrats, meanwhile, are fuming over the GOP maneuvers, arguing Republicans are ignoring the “blue slip" tradition and souring relationships on the Judiciary Committee, where tensions are still palpable following the brutal, months-long fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughElection 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation Protesters roll out a screen playing Blasey Ford's testimony ahead of Federalist Society dinner MORE.

“We are unilaterally disarming the Senate Judiciary Committee in a way that will have collateral damage well beyond the immediate goal of packing the courts with these nominees in a great rush,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocratic senators seek documents on Trump's alleged call for Barr press conference Senate committee advances budget reform plan Bipartisan Enzi-Whitehouse budget bill a very bad fix for deficits MORE (D-R.I.), a member of the committee.

The acrimony spilled into onto the Senate floor recently when Sens. John CornynJohn CornynGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Overnight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban MORE (R-Texas) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocratic senators introduce bill to block funding for border wall live stream Overnight Energy: Perry replacement faces Ukraine questions at hearing | Dem chair demands answers over land agency's relocation | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders unveil 0B Green New Deal public housing plan Perry replacement moves closer to confirmation despite questions on Ukraine MORE (D-Hawaii), who are both members of the panel, traded barbs over Neomi Rao’s nomination to fill the vacancy on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals created by Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court.

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Cornyn said Rao faced “unconvincing attacks” during her Judiciary Committee hearing and that Democrats were targeting her because she was viewed as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

“I guess, when you consider what happened to Brett Kavanaugh, at least we moved on from high school yearbooks now to things that somebody has written in college. I don't know whether that represents progress or not,” he said.

Hirono fired back, saying members of the Judiciary Committee shouldn’t “cast aspersions on the motives of those of us who ask probing questions of judicial nominees for lifetime positions.”

The battle lines on judicial nominations stretch back years. Republicans blame Democrats for nixing the 60-vote filibuster in 2013 for most nominations, labeling that as the spark that started the fire. Democrats are still bitter over the decision to block Judge Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandAppeals court clears way for Congress to seek Trump financial records Divisive docket to test Supreme Court ahead of 2020 Majority disapprove of Trump Supreme Court nominations, says poll MORE, former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, from getting a hearing or a vote in 2016.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHarris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires Senate Democrats introduce Violence Against Women Act after bipartisan talks break down Harris shares video addressing staffers the night Trump was elected: 'This is some s---' MORE (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, told CNN that feelings on the Democratic side of the aisle are still “a little raw” in the wake of the Garland fight.

The renewed tensions come as Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-S.C.), who is up for reelection in 2020, has taken over as chairman of the high-profile Judiciary Committee. He won over conservatives last year when he exploded at Democrats during the hearing for sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, who has consistently denied the accusations against him.

Graham appeared to extend an olive branch during a committee meeting Thursday, telling Democrats he wants the panel to be as “bipartisan as possible” and floated that he was mulling a resolution to go back to 60 votes on judicial nominations after 2020.

He also pledged that he will work with Democrats to make sure they don’t “throw up” over the Trump administration’s picks for circuit court nominees for their home states, telling White House hopeful Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Deval Patrick: a short runway, but potential to get airborne Overnight Health Care: Warren promises gradual move to 'Medicare for All' | Rivals dismiss Warren plan for first 100 days | White House unveils rules on disclosing hospital prices | Planned Parenthood wins case against anti-abortion group MORE (D-N.J.) that he would get a meeting with Paul Matey, nominated for the 3rd Circuit, before his nomination receives a floor vote.

“I will get in a room with you when it comes time for circuit court nominations and see if we can find a compromise with the White House,” Graham said. “I’m going to do this by the golden rule.”

He added during a Federalist Society event this past week that he worries “a lot about what’s coming.”

“If you don’t have to reach across the aisle to get any votes, judges are going to be just more ideological than they would be otherwise,” Graham said.

At the heart of the fight over Trump’s judicial picks is the decision by Graham and Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBooker, Sanders propose new federal agency to control drug prices GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse Johnson opens door to subpoenaing whistleblower, Schiff, Bidens MORE (R-Iowa), the previous committee chairman, to move forward with circuit court picks even when home state senators don’t return their “blue slip.”

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, known as a blue slip, to the Judiciary Committee.

But how strictly the precedent is upheld is decided by the committee chairman, and enforcement has fluctuated depending on who wields the gavel.

Feinstein tried, unsuccessfully, to delay the four circuit court nominees who didn’t have blue slips, arguing Republicans were breaking with tradition and that it would further fracture the committee. But Republicans, who hold a 12-10 majority on the panel, advanced the nominees to the full Senate.

“If what happens is what I think is going to happen, you’re going to get four circuit court judges and the divide is going to increase on this committee,” she said. “You know what comes up, comes down.”

Whitehouse warned that Republicans moving away from the blue slip protocol for circuit court picks could further escalate the fight the over the appeals courts. He also asked why Democrats should recognize seats as belonging to specific states when they take back power in the Senate.

“I’m going to be really hard pressed to say when there’s a South Carolina seat that comes up on your circuit … and there’s a Democratic president and we have the majority that we should consider anybody from South Carolina for that seat,” Whitehouse said to Graham. “Why should we? You’ve got nothing to say because you’ve got no blue slip left.”

There are other fights looming that will test their ability to work together, including Trump’s three nominations for California-based seats on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Feinstein and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisNew poll catapults Buttigieg to frontrunner position in Iowa Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide Harris gets key union endorsement amid polling plateau MORE (D-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee member who is running for president, are opposing the picks.

Harris even went a step further by pledging to oppose any of Trump’s circuit court picks until they work out a better system for nominating judges, a move that earned her praise from progressive groups.

The Senate Rules Committee is also scheduled to vote on a resolution Wednesday that would dramatically cut down the amount of time it takes to confirm hundreds of Trump’s nominees. Currently, a nominee faces 30 hours of debate after they’ve overcome an initial hurdle and showed they have the simple majority they need to be confirmed.

But a proposal from GOP Sens. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordSenate GOP waves Trump off early motion to dismiss impeachment charges On The Money: Lawmakers dismiss fears of another shutdown | Income for poorest Americans fell faster than thought | Net employment holds steady in September | Groups press Senate on retirement bill Lawmakers dismiss fresh fears of another government shutdown MORE (Okla.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Overnight Health Care: Cigarette smoking rates at new low | Spread of vaping illness slowing | Dems in Congress push to block Trump abortion rule GOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial MORE (Mo.) would cut debate time from 30 hours to as little as two hours for district judges and most executive nominees. Supreme Court nominees, circuit court picks and nominees for roughly a dozen boards and commissions would still be subject to the full 30 hours.

Republicans have fumed for years about the slow pace of confirmation for Trump’s nominees. Their narrow 51-49 majority during the previous Congress left them unable to use the “nuclear option” to force through the rules change with only a simple majority.

Now, with a 53-47 majority, GOP senators say going “nuclear” is back on the table. McConnell didn’t tip his hand after a recent closed-door caucus lunch but vented about Democrats treatment of Trump’s court picks.

“As I've said before, there is time for obstruction; I've engaged in it myself. It depends on what you're obstructing,” he told reporters. “If it's something big and important, understandable. If you're just trying to throw sand in the gear so the administration can't function, unacceptable."