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GOP prepares to hit the gas on Trump nominees

Senate Republicans are preparing to fire up the nominations engine when they return to Washington next week.

GOP senators are discussing ways to advance several key nominations after a five-week recess temporarily threw the future of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFox News president, top anchors advised to quarantine after coronavirus exposure: report Six notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Biden on attacks on mental fitness: Trump thought '9/11 attack was 7/11 attack' MORE’s picks into limbo. To accomplish that, they plan to press ahead with confirmation hearings, committee votes and floor votes.

When the Senate reconvenes on Monday, after having left town in late March to help curb the spread of the coronavirus on Capitol Hill, their first order of business will be a vote related to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission nominee.

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In addition, several committees are discussing, or have announced, action on nominations, the first time many Senate panels have been able to convene since at least mid-March.

The Senate Banking Committee has formally scheduled a hearing for Tuesday, when they’ll hold a nomination hearing for Brian Miller, the White House lawyer tapped to serve as the watchdog for the pandemic recovery. Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing for a hearing next week on Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeHillicon Valley: Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting critical facilities | Appeals court rules Uber, Lyft must comply with labor laws | Biden: Countries that target US elections will 'pay a price' Treasury sanctions Russian group accused of targeting US critical facilities with destructive malware Biden: Countries that interfere in US elections will 'pay a price' MORE’s (R-Texas) nomination to be Trump’s next director of national intelligence, a source familiar confirmed to The Hill. 

And the Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on nominations for Wednesday. The agenda has not been released, but a Senate aide told The Hill that Republicans are discussing including Republicans are in talks to include Justin Walker’s nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court. 

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Texas and North Carolina: Democrats on the verge? Trump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report MORE (R-S.C.), who chairs the committee, pledged that they would return to confirming judges as soon as they return to Washington. 

"We're going to go back to business in the Judiciary Committee,” Graham said during a virtual town hall on Wednesday night. 

The high-profile hearings will mark a notable change of pace on Capitol Hill, which, like the rest of the country, has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic. But unlike the bipartisan coronavirus relief packages that made their way through Congress in recent weeks, the nominations are dividing senators along party lines.

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Democrats have signaled opposition to each of the nominees — Miller, Ratcliffe and Walker — and are fuming over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate Democrats hold talkathon to protest Barrett's Supreme Court nomination Trump looms over Ernst's tough reelection fight in Iowa Democratic senator votes against advancing Amy Coney Barrett nomination while wearing RBG mask MORE’s (R-Ky.) decision to bring senators back to Washington in the middle of the pandemic with only nominations on the schedule.

“Instead of focusing on the fight against the coronavirus ... the main item on his agenda, the only one we’ve heard about, is a crony of his, a former staffer,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerGraham dismisses criticism from Fox Business's Lou Dobbs Lewandowski: Trump 'wants to see every Republican reelected regardless of ... if they break with the president' Democratic Senate emerges as possible hurdle for progressives  MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters during a conference call.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Graham arguing he should postpone a hearing scheduled for Wednesday and instead have members focus on coronavirus-related issues like help for law enforcement, immigration and safety in prisons.

"Holding a nominations hearing at this point in time is simply unnecessary. Given the Senate’s proposed schedule for the remainder of the 116th Congress, there is ample time to hold a nominations hearing at a later date. Moreover, there is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture," they wrote.

Walker's and Ratcliffe’s nominations, in particular, will set up fierce fights, with Democrats and their outside group allies expected to target moderate GOP senators or those up for reelection in November.

The American Bar Association rated Walker, who was confirmed late last year to be a district judge in Kentucky, “not qualified,” citing his lack of “requisite trial or litigation experience.” Ratcliffe, meanwhile, withdrew his name from consideration for the intelligence job last year, when Trump initially planned to nominate him, amid scrutiny that he padded his résumé.

But Republicans have signaled they are eager to start confirming Trump’s picks again. Judicial nominees, in particular, have been a top priority for McConnell, who has characterized them as the party’s best shot at having a long-term impact on the direction of the country. Walker, for example, is 38, meaning he could serve for decades on the bench if confirmed for the lifetime appointment.

"As soon as we get back in session, we’ll start confirming judges again. We need to have hearings, and we need to confirm judges. ... My motto for the year is: Leave no vacancy behind. That hasn’t changed. The pandemic will not prevent us from achieving that goal," McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt last week.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate to hold all-night session ahead of Barrett confirmation vote Senators battle over Supreme Court nominee in rare Saturday session Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the chamber, added that the Senate has “some noms for Circuit Courts that we need to deal with.”

“And if you’ve got others that are coming up, I can’t wait until we get back to Washington, because ... there’s no more important job that we have in the United States Senate than putting constitutionalist judges on the federal courts. And when you’ve got these vacancies open, and you’ve got good, qualified nominees, we need to begin moving them,” Thune said.

Tensions have flared between the Senate and Trump over executive nominations after the president recently slammed senators for holding brief pro forma sessions, which effectively block him from being able to make recess appointments.

“If the House will not agree to that adjournment, I will exercise my constitutional authority to adjourn both chambers of Congress. The current practice of leaving town while conducting phony pro forma sessions is a dereliction of duty that the American people cannot afford during this crisis. It is a scam, what they do,” Trump said.

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He specifically pointed to Ratcliffe’s nomination as well as his picks for the Federal Reserve Board. The Senate Banking Committee had been expected to vote on Judy Shelton’s Fed nomination next week, but it was not on the publicly released agenda.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntPower players play chess match on COVID-19 aid GOP to Trump: Focus on policy Low-flying helicopters to measure radiation levels in DC before inauguration MORE (Mo.), a member of Republican leadership and chairman of the Rules Committee, told reporters he didn’t believe “the president has the authority to do what he suggested he ... might do” in terms of adjournment but that Trump had “every reason in the world” to be frustrated.

The division over the decision to move forward with nominations isn’t just ideological.

Democratic senators are pushing McConnell for details on how he plans to keep lawmakers and staff safe and in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing. Though Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTwo Loeffler staffers test positive for COVID-19 Michigan Republican isolating after positive coronavirus test GOP Rep. Mike Bost tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Ky.) is the only senator known to have tested positive for the coronavirus, several Capitol Police officers have tested positive, as well as roughly a dozen individuals working on the restoration of a House office building.

“I am ready to see Senators resume work in the Capitol, but without effective safeguards in place, Mitch McConnell is endangering the lives of the staff who work there — including many of my constituents — and undermining regional efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This is unacceptable,” said Sen. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocratic senators unveil bill to ban discrimination in financial services industry Senate Democrats call for ramped up Capitol coronavirus testing Democratic senators offer bill to make payroll tax deferral optional for federal workers MORE (D-Md.) in a statement.

Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDemocrats to boycott committee vote on Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination The Senate should evoke RBG in its confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Pelosi, Mnuchin push stimulus talks forward, McConnell applies brakes MORE (D-Calif.), who is 86, urged McConnell to cancel his plans to bring the Senate back to Washington next week, saying “clearly the coronavirus is present at the Capitol.” 

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No committee that's scheduled or expected to hold a nominations hearing has said what additional safety steps it will take. Sources indicated to The Hill that discussions are ongoing, and the Judiciary Committee has moved its Wednesday hearing to a larger room.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee announced it would hold a hearing on the coronavirus next week with modified attendance rules in a potential precursor for what to expect from Senate panels.

Under the guidance provided by the HELP Committee, “only senators, witnesses and limited staff will be permitted to enter the hearing room.” The proceeding will be livestreamed.

Asked if leadership was giving guidance to committees about how to proceed safely, spokesmen for McConnell declined to comment beyond a Fox News Radio interview where the GOP leader defended his decision to bring the Senate back next week.

McConnell said the Senate would use “proper safeguards."

“We’re all going to be here, and we believe we can man the Senate in a way that’s consistent with good practices, the proper spacing, masks where appropriate,” he said. “We believe we can conduct the people’s business, and we intend to.”