Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks

The Senate is bracing for an end-of-the-year brawl over President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Ayers decision casts harsh light on Trump NASA offers to show Stephen Curry evidence from moon landings Freedom Caucus calls on leadership to include wall funding, end to 'catch and release' in funding bill MORE's judicial nominations.

Republicans view filling the lifetime court seats as their top priority and are expected to confirm as many nominees as possible before the Senate adjourns for the year, infuriating Democrats and their allies who are powerless to stop Trump’s picks.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe Judd Gregg: The government goes geriatric MORE (R-Ky.) is already teeing up votes for two nominations — Jonathan Kobes to be an 8th Circuit Court judge and Thomas Farr to be a district court judge — for when senators return from their Thanksgiving recess.

ADVERTISEMENT

And Republicans expect McConnell to barrel through more nominations before Dec. 14, the chamber’s target date to wrap up their work for the year.

“That’s Sen. McConnell’s No. 1 priority is to continue to move judges,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure This week: Trump, Dems set to meet amid funding fight GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Texas), the second-ranking Republican.

There are 35 judicial nominees available for votes on the Senate calendar, leaving more nominations than days left in the Senate’s work schedule to confirm the picks.

McConnell has pledged that he will move each of Trump’s nominees who are out of committee by the end of the year. If he's going to make good on that plan, he'll either need a final nominations package or keep the Senate in session through the holidays.

Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonCornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure Trump ultimatum sparks fears of new arms race GOP tensions running high on criminal justice bill MORE (R-Ark.) said McConnell has pledged he won’t leave any court nominees behind, adding that it was up to Democrats to determine when they wanted to leave town.

“It’s really up to them whether they want to confirm those on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve, or whether they want to confirm them earlier in December by yielding back the time,” Cotton told radio host Hugh Hewitt.

ADVERTISEMENT

Republicans have been confirming Trump’s judicial nominees at a rapid clip, setting a record for the number of appeals judges confirmed during the first two years of an administration.

McConnell recently touted the record number of circuit judges at the Federalist Society’s Antonin Scalia Memorial Dinner, adding that “there will be more before the end of this current Congress.”

Though Republicans have the first unified GOP government in a decade, McConnell says he views judicial nominations as the party’s best chance of having a long-term impact on the direction of the country.

Underscoring the importance on the nominations, the issue came up during a recent White House meeting between Trump, McConnell, Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyDemocratic leaders urge Trump to drop border wall proposal Cornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure Rare bipartisanship in lame duck Congress battling the ‘WTO’ of insurance regulation MORE (R-Ala.) and Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe Key Senate Republican: Criminal justice reform needs more GOP support Sunday shows preview: Trade talks, Cohen sentencing memo take center stage MORE (R-S.D.) to discuss the end-of-the-year agenda.

“McConnell discussed that that was one of his priorities and how important it was,” Shelby said after the meeting.

The GOP’s hardball tactics have infuriated Democrats and their allies, who cannot stop Trump’s picks without help from Republicans.

People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker called Kobes and Farr the latest examples of Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyBrady releases revised version of year-end tax package Overnight Health Care: House set to vote on bill targeting drug companies for overcharging Medicaid | Dems press Trump officials on pre-existing conditions | Tobacco giant invests .8B in Canadian marijuana grower House set to vote on bill cracking down on drug companies overcharging Medicaid MORE (R-Iowa) and McConnell's “reckless and irresponsible approach to rubber stamping Trump’s dangerous judicial nominations,” adding that the two senators “have debased the Senate in pursuit of their ultra-partisan agenda.”

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDems ask if Trump aide Bill Shine is breaking ethics laws The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump searches for next chief of staff | Congress, Trump dig in for funding fight | Why O'Rourke worries some Dems Warren has contacted 100 people in early 2020 primary states: report MORE (D-Mass.) seized on McConnell’s decision to tee up Farr’s nomination, saying he was making a “last-ditch effort” and warning that Farr, if confirmed, will “keep working to disenfranchise African Americans and communities of color.”

Tensions have been running high for months over judicial nominations, with Republicans accusing Democrats of “obstruction” and Democrats arguing McConnell and Grassley are destroying Senate norms in order to fill the courts with conservative judges.

The frustrations boiled over during Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Amgen — Supreme Court sides with Planned Parenthood, declines to take funding case | NIH to fund research into fetal tissue alternatives | Oklahoma seeks Trump approval for Medicaid work requirements Time fumbles another 'Person of the Year' by excluding Kavanaugh Trump, Mueller both make Time 'Person of the Year' shortlist MORE’s confirmation fight, with Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) acknowledging that relations on the Judiciary Committee are still “a little tense.”

But Democrats are powerless to stop Trump’s nominees on their own after they went nuclear in 2013 and lowered the 60-vote filibuster for most nominations to a simple majority. Republicans followed suit in 2017 and nixed the 60-vote hurdle for Supreme Court picks.

In a further blow to Democrats, Grassley is moving circuit court nominees over the objection of home-state senators. The Senate has confirmed nominees even though one home-state senator didn’t return their blue slip, a sheet of paper that indicates if they support the nomination.

But if Republicans want to max out the number of judicial nominees they could confirm they’ll need to defuse a fight with a member of their own party: Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake: Republican Party ‘is a frog slowly boiling in water’ Tim Scott: Stop giving court picks with 'questionable track records on race' a Senate vote Flake stands firm on sending a ‘message to the White House’ on Mueller MORE (Ariz.).

Flake, who is retiring in January, is refusing to support judicial nominees until he gets a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

“The hope here is that we bring this to a vote and that we can approve some more judges,” Flake said. “There’s a circuit court judge that I helped get nominated that we would like to see on the 9th Circuit. She’s noncontroversial. There are other noncontroversial judges that we ought to be moving through, but the priority here has to be to protect the special counsel.”

No Republicans have said that they will help Flake block nominations on the Senate floor, but the party holds an 11-10 majority on Judiciary Committee meaning controversial nominations, which are regularly passed along party lines, will be blocked at committee level until Republicans can appease Flake or win over a Democrat.

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinO’Rourke is fireball, but not all Dems are sold Trump tells McConnell to let Senate vote on criminal justice reform Political opposites come together for Bush funeral MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the panel, praised Flake’s tactics, saying he has “struck at the heart of the Republican agenda.”

“They are more determined to approve judges than anything else that they’re working on,” Durbin said.

Republicans discussed how to break Flake’s impasse during their final closed-door caucus lunch before the Thanksgiving recess, but didn’t reach a decision. A GOP senator suggested giving him a symbolic, nonbinding “sense of the Senate” vote, but Flake rejected that offer.

It’s not the first time Flake has issued an ultimatum over judicial nominations. He briefly opposed circuit court picks over Trump’s tariff policy but dropped his opposition when he got a procedural vote related to trade policy.

With Flake on his way out, McConnell could simply wait until next year. If a nominee isn’t confirmed by the end of the year, the White House needs to renominate that person — a timely, but not fatal, process.

Republicans will have anywhere from a 52- to 53-seat majority next year. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) clinched a victory over Democratic Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonMore than 6000 mail-in ballots in Florida were not counted: officials Rick Scott funded three-quarters of his Senate campaign, to tune of .6M Manchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives MORE on Sunday. In Mississippi, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and Mike Espy (D) are battling in a runoff scheduled for Nov. 27.

McConnell noted during the Federalist Society event that the Senate was in the “personnel business” and that Republicans would have an “enhanced majority” to confirm judges next year.

“The American people have smiled on the Senate … we’re going to keep doing it for two more years,” he said.

And Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCorker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death Cornyn opens door to including criminal justice bill in government funding measure The Hill's Morning Report — Trump shakes up staff with eye on 2020, Mueller probe MORE (R-S.C.), who’s expected to take over as Judiciary Committee chairman next year, pledged that he would work to confirm conservative judges if colleagues pick him to lead the panel.

“If I am fortunate enough to be selected by my colleagues to serve as chairman, I will push for the appointment and Senate confirmation of highly qualified conservative judges to the federal bench,” Graham said.