GOP triggers 'nuclear option' to speed up Trump picks

Senate Republicans deployed the “nuclear option” on Wednesday to drastically reduce the time it takes to confirm hundreds of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE’s nominees.

In back-to-back votes, Republicans changed the rules for the amount of time it takes to confirm most executive nominees and district judges — marking the second and third time Republicans have used the hardball tactic since taking over in 2015.

The combined actions will result in most nominations that require Senate confirmation needing only two hours of debate after they’ve defeated a filibuster that shows they have the votes to ultimately be confirmed. Before Wednesday’s rules change, they faced up to an additional 30 hours of debate.

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Supreme Court picks, appeals court judges and Cabinet nominees will not be affected by the change and could still face the lengthier Senate floor debate.

But the move will let Republicans hit the gas on confirming nominations, a top priority in an era of divided government that has left lawmakers without big-ticket legislative agenda items.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor Progressive group knocks McConnell for talking judicial picks during coronavirus Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) argued shortly before triggering the hardball procedural tactic that the Senate needed to go back to a “more normal and reasonable process” for confirming nominations.

“Our colleagues across the aisle have chosen to endlessly relitigate the 2016 election rather than actually participate in governing,” McConnell said. “This problem goes deeper than today. We’re talking about the future of this very institution and the future functioning of our constitutional government.

Republicans have set a record for the number of appeals court judges confirmed during an administration’s first two years, but they’ve accused Democrats of using the chamber’s legislative rulebook to slow down lower-level executive and judicial nominations.

Of 715 “key positions” tracked by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, 435 have been confirmed by the Senate. An additional 131 are awaiting confirmation, 12 need to be formally nominated and 140 positions still need nominations.

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Nominations have increasingly become a lightning-rod issue during Trump’s administration, with bases in both parties drawing increasingly hard lines on the confirmation fights. Republicans nixed the 60-vote filibuster on Supreme Court judges in 2017 and Democrats remain bitter over McConnell’s decision not to give Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandDC wine bar loses appeal in lawsuit against Trump hotel Mitch McConnell may win the impeachment and lose the Senate The Trumpification of the federal courts MORE, former President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, a hearing or a vote.

But the bad blood over nominations goes back years. McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBiden calls on Trump to appoint coronavirus 'supply commander' Democrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Schumer doubles down in call for Trump to name coronavirus supply czar MORE (D-N.Y.) argued with each other on the Senate floor before Republicans pushed through the rules change.

Schumer, surrounded by a rotating cast of about 20 Democrats, spoke from the Senate floor for roughly 20 minutes, at times turning to lecture the scattering of Republicans who were seated in the chamber.

“Two hours for a lifetime appointment is unacceptable. Two hours for a lifetime appointment with huge influence on people’s lives is unacceptable. It’s ridiculous,” Schumer said, turning to look directly at Republicans.

He added that McConnell’s decision to block Garland from getting a hearing or a vote was a “new Machiavellian low.”

McConnell quickly returned fire, his face appearing visibly red as he recalled hardball tactics used over judicial nominations dating back to the Nixon administration. He added that he warned Democrats against nixing the 60-vote filibuster in 2013 on executive nominations, appeals judges and district court picks.

“I said at the time I didn’t like the way it was done. And I thought maybe the other side would rue the day they did it. Amazingly enough, about a year and a half later I’m majority leader. Funny how these things change, isn’t it?” McConnell said.

He added that several Democrats had privately told him they would support the rules change if it went into effect in 2021.

“Look, we know you don’t like Donald Trump, but there was an election. He’s at least entitled to set up the administration and make it function,” McConnell said.

Republicans made a last-ditch effort on Tuesday to pass the rules change as a standing order, which would have required 60 votes. But Democrats and Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeJustice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Trump on Romney's negative coronavirus test: 'I am so happy I can barely speak' MORE (R-Utah) voted against the resolution, preventing it from getting the necessary support to pass.

The resolution was widely expected to fail the earlier test vote but was aimed at assuaging concerns from within the GOP caucus about moving forward with the nuclear option without at least trying to pass it with Democrats. The caucus held a meeting Tuesday evening to walk through the plan for Wednesday.

“I think we had to convince 51, at least 51, of our members that we’re doing everything possible to try to do this through regular order,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP senator: National shelter-in-place order would be an 'overreaction' Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Cuban says he'd spank daughter if she was partying during coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Texas) about Tuesday’s vote.

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Lee and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus MORE (R-Maine) voted against using the “nuclear option” to change the rules on Wednesday, leaving Republicans with the minimum 51 votes needed to force through the rules change.

Republicans say they reached out to negotiate an agreement with Democrats to try to avoid Wednesday’s floor drama but found little interest. Sources familiar with the negotiations told The Hill last week that Democrats have tried to negotiate a deal with McConnell, with suggested changes such as postponing the rules change until 2021, applying it only to executive nominees or restoring the “blue slip” for circuit court picks, but they were unable to reach an agreement.

A similar resolution passed the Senate in 2013 that cut debate time for most executive nominations to eight hours and district judges to two hours. But that resolution, which passed with bipartisan support, only controlled the 113th Congress.

Democrats argue that the dynamic around nominations has changed dramatically since then. Democrats nixed the 60-vote filibuster in 2013 for most nominations and Republicans followed suit in 2017 on Supreme Court nominations.

Republicans have also moved circuit nominations over the objections of home-state senators.

“The way my colleagues on the other side talk about the issue, you’d think Democrats delayed every nominee for as long as possible. That just doesn’t remotely resemble the truth,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Democrats say more unemployment benefits needed in wake of record unemployment claims Democrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout MORE (D-Ore.).

Schumer, turning to point at McConnell, called his decision to change the rules a “shame” and a “disgrace.”

“That is not the Senate we want,” Schumer said. “For Leader McConnell to brag about confirming more judges than ever before and then complain about Democratic obstruction and say the process is broken so you have to change the rules is the height of hypocrisy.”