Senate GOP poised to go 'nuclear' on Trump picks

Senate Republicans are set to hit the gas on confirming hundreds of President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE’s nominees by muscling through a rules change that would dramatically cut down on the amount of time required to confirm district court and executive nominations.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Democrats press for action on election security Hillicon Valley: Election security looms over funding talks | Antitrust enforcers in turf war | Facebook details new oversight board | Apple fights EU tax bill MORE (R-Ky.), who supports the change, hasn’t tipped his hand on when the proposal will come to the Senate floor. But members of his leadership team say it will be taken up after lawmakers return to Washington next week.

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“I think we have 51 Republicans who would rather do it with 60 [votes], most of us,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Exclusive: Kushner tells GOP it needs to unify behind immigration plan The Hill's Morning Report - Can Trump save GOP in North Carolina special election? MORE (R-Mo.), a member of leadership who helped spearhead the proposal along with Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordDemocrats press for action on election security GOP group's ad calls on Graham to push for election security: 'Are you still trying?' Manufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank MORE (R-Okla.). “We cannot continue to let this current situation be the way we do business.”

Republicans say they want to change the rules by way of a standing order, which would require 60 votes and the support of Democrats, but recognize that they are unlikely to hit that mark since no Democrats are signaling support.

The resolution would reduce the amount of debate time required for district judge picks and most executive nominations.

 The Senate allows for an additional 30 hours of debate on nominees even after it’s clear that they can defeat a filibuster and ultimately be confirmed. The Blunt-Lankford proposal would reduce that extra time to as few as two hours.

Supreme Court nominees, appeals court judges, Cabinet picks and roughly a dozen boards and commissions would be exempt from the proposed change.

Republicans say the rules change is something Democrats would likely pursue  if they controlled the White House.

“It’s pretty clear that they’re willing to do that in 2021 but they’re not willing to do it now, which is not a very principled position,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats press for action on election security On The Money: NY prosecutors subpoena eight years of Trump tax returns | Senators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms | Progressive tax-the-rich push gains momentum | Trump faces dwindling leverage with China Senators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms MORE (R-Texas), a member of McConnell’s leadership team.

The Senate passed a similar resolution in 2013 that cut most executive nominations to eight hours of debate after a filibuster was defeated and district judges were reduced to two hours. But that rule lasted only until January 2015, when the 114th Congress began.

Republicans are considering an attempt at the rules change with 60 votes, in order to give Democrats a chance to vote for it. But GOP leaders say they have the 51 votes needed for a “nuclear option” to force through the Blunt-Lankford resolution if no Democrats support it.

“Sixty votes would still be our preferred way to do it, and whether the leader decides … we need to do it with 60 or demonstrate we don’t have 60, I don’t know,” Blunt said. “But I think we do have 51.”

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A spokesman for McConnell on Tuesday declined to provide guidance on when the rules change would come to the floor or if the GOP would first attempt to pass the measure with at least 60 votes. But the Republican leader recently told reporters that he wanted to change the Senate rules to allow faster approvals of most nominations and signaled he was willing to have Republicans force through the change without Democrats.

“We’re still hoping to have bipartisan support to go forward with the standing order, which would require 60 votes. In the absence of that, it is still my desire to try to achieve” the rules change, he told reporters after a recent Senate GOP lunch.

Republicans have been privately discussing changing the rules to make it easier to confirm Trump’s nominees for years. But their 51-49 majority combined with opposition from some members of their caucus, all but ended talk of changing the rules without help from Democrats.

The GOP now holds a 53-47 advantage in the Senate.

Not every Republican senator has signed on to the proposed rules change. Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Congress passes bill to begin scenic byways renaissance MORE (Maine), who is up for reelection next year and previously expressed opposition to a similar proposal, has repeatedly demurred when asked about the matter. But Republicans can lose two senators from their party and still have the 51 votes needed for passage under the nuclear option.

Collins in 2017 voted with her fellow Republicans to lower the threshold for advancing Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to 51.

Republicans have set a record for the number of circuit court judges confirmed during a president’s first two years in office, but argue Democrats are using the Senate’s rulebook to stonewall and slow-walk lower-level judicial and executive nominees.

Democrats have pushed back against efforts to change the rules and are fuming at Republicans for confirming circuit court nominees even when home-state senators don’t submit a blue slip, a sheet of paper indicating support for the nominee.

Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall MORE (D-N.Y.), asked about GOP plans to change the rules, told reporters during a recent press conference that Republicans should first reinstate the blue slip for circuit court nominees.

“You know what I said to [Tennessee Sen.] Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderHere are the lawmakers who aren't seeking reelection in 2020 EXCLUSIVE: Swing-state voters oppose 'surprise' medical bill legislation, Trump pollster warns The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE? ... I said, ‘Restore the blue slips and then let’s talk about a compromise,’ ” Schumer said. “[But] they can go nuclear and change the rules.”

If Republicans force through the rules change, Democrats will come under immense pressure from their base to retaliate, including throwing a roadblock into the administration’s pipeline for picking district court judges.

“I think that if Republicans do this and they change the rules, just so that they can cram more judges onto the courts … we’d like to see the Democratic caucus respond in some way that would meet this moment,” said Chris Kang, the chief counsel for Demand Justice, a liberal group.

In addition to “smaller procedural things” that Democrats could do in response to Republicans changing the rules, Kang floated that Democrats could withhold blue slips for lower-level district judges.

“If Democrats responded by withholding all of theirs en masse, they would stop President Trump from filling half of the judicial vacancies,” he said. “That’s the kind of systemic response that they can and should have if Republicans are going to unilaterally change the rules to benefit themselves.”