Senate

McConnell focuses on confirming judicial nominees with COVID-19 talks stalled

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) turned the Senate's focus to confirming a slate of judicial nominees as talks over a fifth coronavirus package are stuck at an impasse. 

The Senate confirmed a total of eight judges this week: three on Tuesday, three on Wednesday and two on Thursday.

"Republican Senators, like working families across the country, had hoped the Senate would be spending this week completing more bipartisan pandemic relief," McConnell said from the Senate floor. "Since Democrats are stonewalling pandemic relief, the Senate is using our time to confirm more well-qualified judicial nominees to lifetime positions on the federal bench."

That follows a similar pattern from last week when the Senate confirmed five nominees, making a total of 13 judges who have been confirmed since lawmakers returned from the August recess. Court picks are a top priority for McConnell, who views them as the party's best shot at having a long-term impact on the direction of the country. During the Trump administration, Republicans have set the second-fastest pace for judicial confirmations of any U.S. president. 

Each of the judges confirmed during the past two weeks have been for the lower-level district courts, whose decisions can be overturned by the circuit courts or the Supreme Court. Most of the judicial nominations confirmed so far this month have come from blue states. 

Nearly all of the nominations were confirmed with a supermajority, but two received fewer than 60 votes: Stephen McGlynn and David Dugan, who were both confirmed this week to be district judges for the southern district of Illinois. 

The two sparked fierce backlash from outside groups because of their views on reproductive rights. 

"Donald Trump's nomination of Stephen McGlynn and David Dugan to the federal judiciary is another step in the Radical Right's decades-long effort to take over the courts and roll back reproductive freedom," NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement. "Both of these judges pose an imminent threat to the fundamental freedoms we hold dear."

The two judges split the votes of Illinois Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. Durbin, in a statement, said he supported them because they went through the state's bipartisan selection process. Duckworth had been expected to vote for them, but told The Huffington Post that they have a "troubling record on constitutionally-protected reproductive health rights demonstrating extreme bias against women's rights and science."

The Senate is expected to vote on additional nominations next week, with McConnell paving the way for votes on six individuals. Nominees scheduled to get a vote include an additional three judicial picks and three nominees for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

McConnell's decision to focus on nominations comes as talks on another coronavirus relief package are deep into a weeks-long stalemate with no signs of progress between congressional Democrats, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. 

President Trump, in a tweet, urged Republicans to embrace a higher price tag for a coronavirus package, and Meadows indicated the president could support a bill that costs $1.5 trillion. 

But the two sides still appear far apart on an agreement. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on Thursday that it was "hard to see" Democrats agreeing to a bill below $2.2 trillion. 

Lawmakers are quickly running out of time to revive the coronavirus talks; the House is expected to vote on a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government next week and then leave Washington, D.C., until after the election. Democratic leadership has indicated members will be brought back if they get a deal on the next coronavirus package. 

The Senate is scheduled to be in session through Oct. 9, but GOP senators say they could leave early once they pass a government funding bill. 

The White House and Democratic leadership are still negotiating on an end date for the government funding bill, but if the House is able to pass the bill early next week, that could allow the Senate to pass it by the end of the week. Otherwise, the Senate is out of session on Sept. 28 and and Sept. 29, meaning it will need to return to pass a funding bill on Sept. 30, when it would have less than 24 hours to prevent a shutdown. 

Democrats have been debating behind closed doors what their strategy should be in the government funding fight. Though Pelosi and Mnuchin agreed to pass a "clean" spending bill, meaning it would not include poison pills, they have not agreed on a date. 

Democrats are weighing if they should agree to a funding bill that goes into December or try to push for a bill that goes into next year, with February viewed as a potential alternative end date. 

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) indicated on Thursday that the debate within the caucus is ongoing. 

"We've debated it back and forth all week," he said. 

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