GOP Senators Want More Action on Trump Nominees

Sen. Lankford pushes plan to change Senate rules to stop Dem delays

Sen. James Lankford / Getty Images
March 29, 2018

Frustrated by Democratic efforts to use Senate rules to stymie confirmation of President Donald Trump's political appointees, conservative Senate Republicans are pressing for a more confrontational approach by Senate GOP leaders.

The Senate Republicans are particularly incensed that Democrats are using delaying tactics on political appointments that most of them wind up supporting just to grind away at the process and prevent Trump from installing his own leadership team at departments and agencies across the federal government.

Democrats are currently preventing a final Senate confirmation vote on 78 nominees who have made it through the vetting process and passed committee muster but remain stalled.

Instead of deferring to most presidential appointees by agreeing to conserve precious Senate floor time, Democrats have demanded that each political nominee receive 30 hours of debate, a process known as invoking cloture.

Some rank-and-file Republicans argue that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) could make it tougher for Democrats to maintain their demands by requiring the Senate to remain in Washington on Mondays and Fridays, and even some weekends, to push through the list of nominees.

Remaining in D.C. would hurt vulnerable Senate Democrats who need to extra time to fundraise and go back home to campaign and could possibly push the Democrats to relent and give-up the 30-hour demands. Such a plan would also hinder vulnerable Republicans, and GOP leaders are sensitive to their GOP colleagues' concerns.

Still, McConnell and the White House over the last several weeks have stepped up their complaints about the Democrats "unprecedented" 30-hour demands.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans have floated ideas to get Democrats to back off of their stalling tactics.

Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) is actively pursuing a plan to thwart Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's delays that would require the Senate to change a rule that requires 30 hours of Senate debate for every presidential nominee.

Instead, Lankford's "gridlock reform" reform would reduce the required hours of debate to eight, excluding cabinet secretaries, allowing for swifter passage.

Such an alteration to Senate rules would require 60 votes to change the rules for the remaining months of this year and 67 votes for a permanent change.

Republicans maintain a slim, 51-vote majority so Lankford is reaching out to vulnerable red-state Democrats to try to win their support.

"The Senate is sitting on 78 vetted nominees who have already passed committee but Sen. Schumer is delaying their vote," Lankford tweeted Wednesday. "This harms basic gov't agency services for the American people & prevents us from debating other legislation. We need #GridlockReform."

Lankford's spokesman Darrell Jordan told the Washington Free Beacon that his boss "is working hard to build support within the Senate for his gridlock reform proposal."

"We are hoping for some movement soon," Lankford said.

McConnell also suggested in October of last year that he would back a proposal to limit Democrat's ability to delay nominations.

While McConnell has said he wants to maintain the Senate's minority party's ability to filibuster legislation, he said presidential nominees are "a different matter" and deemed Democratic delays "just simply ridiculous."

"I think the delays post-cloture that have been employed are just simply ridiculous, and Sen. Lankford is the point person on this. He's talking to the Democrats."

"A lot of them feel the same way," McConnell said, adding that there could be a way to adjust the rules in a way that can help get the Trump administration positions filled in "a timely manner."

Republican sources have pointed to other ideas GOP Senate aides have floated, including one that would involve senators using their power to place holds on career foreign service officers nominated for ambassadorships as leverage to convince Democrats to move key political appointments at the State Department and other agencies.

Looking at ambassadorships alone, the Senate has confirmed 27 career foreign service officer appointments with three awaiting confirmation, according to the American Foreign Service Association's ambassador tracker. Meanwhile, there are still 14 of 44 political appointees waiting to be confirmed to their top diplomatic posts.

One Republican Senate source said senators are careful with abusing their power to single-handedly block nominations by placing "holds," lest the Senate leadership decide to jettison the privilege altogether.

Republicans may be more amenable to shutting down the Democrats' delays as Trump's administration enters its 15th month with roughly half of its political nominees in place.

Marc Short, the White House's director of legislative affairs, said in mid-March the Democrats' delaying tactics far exceed any the opposition party has used against presidential nominees during the Obama and Bush administrations. Nearly 43 percent of Trump's nominees are still waiting for confirmation and many of them would sail through with Democratic support if they could get a floor vote.

"Sen. Schumer is essentially weaponizing a Senate procedure and demanding cloture votes on our nominees that he even eventually supports," Short told reporters at a press briefing.

"Eleven of the president's nominees have been approved without a single dissenting vote, yet [were] still forced to go through a 30 hours of debate to essentially slow down the Senate calendar simply for the purpose of obstruction."

"At this rate, the United States Senate would take 11-and-a-half years to confirm our nominees," he added.

Democrats are still trying to hold up the confirmation of Richard Grenell, who Trump nominated to be ambassador to Germany in September. Grenell has a long resume of foreign policy experience, served as a longtime spokesman at the United Nations, and as an openly gay conservative, has some Democratic support.

Democrats continued to block unanimous consent for Grenell's nomination, instead, requiring the Senate to invoke cloture, triggering the 30 hours of floor debate.

Trump named Kevin McAleenan as his choice to run the U.S. Customs and Border Control early last year and the Senate Finance Committee unanimously approved his nomination in December. The Senate just last week found the time to confirm him and only after Democrats required the 30 hours of debate.

Another key national security nominee who remains sidelined is Yleem Poblete, who was nominated in October to serve as assistant secretary for arms control at the State Department. Poblete, who previously served as the staff director at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was nominated early last year.

The Senate is also sitting on the nomination of Isabel Patelunas for assistant secretary of the Treasury for intelligence and analysis, a key post in dealing with sanctions against U.S. adversaries.

Update: Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, last fall placed a hold on Petalunas’ nomination in an attempt to convince the Treasury Department to hand over financial documents related to Russia.

The Treasury Department has said that it had already responded to the Intelligence Committee’s request for the same documents.