McConnell to use 'nuclear option' to confirm lower-level nominees

With debate limited to just two hours instead of 30, it will be easier to confirm some of President Donald Trump's judicial and executive branch nominees.
Image: McConnell speaks at AIPAC in Washington
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pauses while speaking at AIPAC in Washington on March 26, 2019.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

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By Frank Thorp V and Allan Smith

Mitch McConnell is about to go nuclear, again.

The Senate on Tuesday failed to adopt a resolution to change the chamber's rules so that non-Cabinet level and district court judicial nominations would face only two hours of floor debate rather than the existing 30 hours of debate before a final confirmation vote is held.

That Republican-backed resolution needed 60 votes to pass and was defeated, as expected, in a 51-48 party line vote. But Senate Majority Leader McConnell, R-Ky., plans to use Senate procedural tactics to change those rules by a simple majority vote as soon as Wednesday.

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That is referred to as the "nuclear option," and it mirrors what McConnell did to eliminate the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court justices in order to confirm Neil Gorsuch and, later, Brett Kavanaugh to the high court.

McConnell and fellow Republicans pointed to the Democratic leadership as having started a tit-for-tat by eliminating the 60-vote threshold for confirmation of executive branch and non-Supreme Court judicial nominations during President Barack Obama's second term.

While in the majority in 2013, Democrats used the nuclear option to change the vote threshold for confirming presidential nominees, except for those to the Supreme Court, from 60 votes to a simple majority. That year the Senate also passed a resolution to speed up debate on lower-level nominees, a resolution that passed with bipartisan support but was only temporary.

With debate limited to just two hours instead of 30, it will be easier to confirm some of the judges nominated by President Donald Trump, something McConnell has made a priority during Trump's first term, confirming a substantial number of judges to appeals and district courts. The rule change will also help Republicans confirm some of Trump's other nominees who have not received a vote before the full Senate.

Democrats oppose the move, arguing it will chisel away historic Senate rules protecting the body from simply becoming a smaller version of the House.

"It is a resolution in search of a problem," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said on the Senate floor Tuesday before the resolution failed to pass. "It is an erosion of the Senate’s responsibility — our sworn constitutional duty — to advise and consent to the president’s nominations. It is a removal of one of the last guardrails for quality and bipartisanship in our nominations process. It is a short-sighted, partisan power grab."

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, McConnell said the move was necessary to bypass what he calls "systematic obstruction" by the Democrats.

"Not targeted, thoughtful opposition to a few marquee nominations or rare circumstances, but a grinding, across-the-board effort to delay and obstruct the people this president puts up," McConnell said. "Even if they have unquestionable qualifications. Even if the job is relatively low-profile."