Trump judicial picks face rare GOP opposition

President Trump’s judicial nominees are running into roadblocks from an unexpected group: Republican senators.

GOP leaders view the president’s court picks as their top priority — smashing records for the pace of influential appeals court picks. They are also on the brink of setting the fastest confirmation pace for judicial nominees overall.

{mosads}But a recent string of nominees is facing skepticism from Republican senators who are either sinking their nominations or raising questions about their ability to be confirmed.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) became the latest member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to send up a warning flare that he could vote against one of Trump’s picks. 

Kennedy said that Steven Menashi, nominated for the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, could be “Oliver Wendell Scalia” but that he couldn’t vote for him unless he gets a clear picture of how Menashi thinks about legal issues.

“If someone gets mad at that, they need to call somebody who cares, because that is my job and I’m tired of them playing games,” Kennedy said in an apparent opening shot at potential critics.

Menashi tangled with several senators, including Kennedy, during his confirmation hearing over frustration that he was dodging their questions. At one point, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump’s who chairs the committee, appeared exasperated with Menashi, warning it is “important that you tell us what you worked on.”

Kennedy wants Menashi to come back before the committee. A spokesperson for Graham said there was no update on a potential second hearing. But Graham has also not scheduled a committee vote on Menashi’s nomination.

Menashi is one of two appeals court nominees under the microscope with Republican senators.

{mossecondads}Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has told colleagues he will oppose Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden’s nomination to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The simmering fight over his nomination will come to a head on Thursday, when he’s scheduled to get a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ozerden has come under fire from outside groups over questions about his conservative credentials and his dismissal of a case involving ObamaCare’s birth control mandate.

Cruz’s defection means Ozerden will need Democratic votes to have his nomination advanced to the full Senate for a vote, where a larger GOP majority could give him a better chance of being confirmed. The GOP opposition comes despite backing from his two Republican home-state senators — Mississippi Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith and Roger Wicker — and his ties to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

No Democrats have said they will vote for Ozerden. But Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the committee, didn’t rule it out. 

“I’ve looked at his record. He wouldn’t be my choice for a circuit court position, but I find nothing that disqualifies him,” Durbin said. “We’re going to go through it one more time. But from what I can see he is a conservative jurist, but he’s done nothing to disqualify himself.”

But Ozerden could face bigger hurdles on the Senate Judiciary Committee besides Cruz. Several GOP senators, including Kennedy and Sens. John Cornyn (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), are undecided.

“I will obviously be talking to my colleagues about that and seeing what the path forward is, or if there is a path forward,” said Cornyn, who is up for reelection next year.

The two circuit court nominees are the latest in a string of district and appeals picks that have sparked rare pushback from Republican senators in recent months.

After Hawley raised concerns about Neomi Rao’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that Hawley “joins the left in trashing” Rao and argued that the GOP senator was trying to use a “litmus test” on Trump’s nominee. Hawley fired back on Twitter that the editorial was “embarrassing.”

“The president is doing a fantastic job but he needs help. He has got to have help from the Senate in getting the kind of judges that he promised to nominate,” Hawley told The Hill on Thursday. “I mean, if we don’t do our job then the process doesn’t really work.”

Rao also sparked skepticism from Cruz and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), both members of the Judiciary Committee. They ultimately voted to advance Rao’s nomination out of the Judiciary Committee, but indicated they had concerns that could lead them to vote differently if she were nominated for the Supreme Court. 

Criticism from GOP senators and conservative outside groups also led Michigan attorney Michael Bogren to ask that his district judge nomination be withdrawn. Two nominees — Ryan Bounds to be a circuit judge and Thomas Farr to be a district judge — withdrew last year after Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) warned he couldn’t support them because of their writings related to race.

On the opposite end of the GOP spectrum, Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Susan Collins (Maine) have also captured headlines for opposing Trump’s judicial nominees on the Senate floor.

But despite the scuffles, Republicans have leaned heavily on their ability to confirm Trump’s nominees as a reason for why they should keep their majority. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touted the fights over Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch in a video released to formally kick off his reelection bid.

Senate Republicans have confirmed more than 150 judges for Trump. With legislation slowing to a crawl in divided government, Republicans view the courts as their best shot at having a long-term impact on the direction of the country.

Cornyn brushed aside a question about the tension between some of Trump’s court picks and his GOP colleagues, noting they were anomalies rather than the norm.

“I just think there’s concerns by some members on an individual nominee,” he said. “It’s not surprising to me that occasionally there will be somebody who gets nominated that one or more members have questions about.”

Graham also defended senators in both parties who have come under pressure from outside groups trying to sway them on judicial nomination votes.

“It’s not just the left, it’s the right. Sen. Hawley, I think you had a lot of scrutiny over your decision to ask hard questions of a Trump nominee,” Graham said. “To those who are trying to take our committee away from us … I think it will serve us well to stick together and fight back.”

He also appeared to jokingly acknowledge the strong opinions on his own side of the aisle during a committee meeting Thursday. After seven minutes of senators complimenting each other and their staffs, Graham joked that it had been a “good” meeting “so we probably need to end it.”

“Time is not on our side with this crowd,” he said, before pointing to Republicans. “I’m talking about our side.”

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Dick Durbin Donald Trump John Cornyn John Kennedy Joni Ernst Josh Hawley Lindsey Graham Mick Mulvaney Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Neil Gorsuch Roger Wicker Susan Collins Ted Cruz Tim Scott Trump judicial nominees
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