McConnell Gets Tougher on Dem Obstruction of Trump's Nominees

If Dems don't back down, Republicans could blow up Senate rules to force the issue

Mitch McConnell / Getty Images
April 11, 2018

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, responding to frustration among GOP senators about Senate delays in confirming President Trump's nominees, is considering a more aggressive manner of confronting Democrats' obstruction and delays.

The Kentucky Republican early this week sent a signal to Democrats that he would force all senators to remain in session on Friday and possibly sacrifice their weekend to confirm a slate of Trump's nominees.

The new push to pick up the pace began Monday night and continued into Tuesday.

"We have a number of nominees to consider in the next several days," McConnell said Monday night on the Senate floor. "The Senate's workweek will not end until all of these amply qualified nominees are confirmed."

On Tuesday, he followed up by pledging to keep the Senate in session "as long as it takes" to clear this current slate of six nominees.

The nominations, he said, have been "vetted" and their expertise is "well-known."

"Their positions sit empty, waiting to be filled. The American people are waiting for their president to have his full team, and for their federal government to be appropriately staffed."

The six nominations up for confirmation this week include Trump's choice for a seat on the National Labor Relations Board and nominees for key posts at the Department of Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency, and two district court judges.

Rank-and-file Republican senators are applauding McConnell's action, which signals a more confrontational approach with Democrats that they have been urging for months.

Working through the weekend may seem like a minor sacrifice, but giving up weekends exacts a price because many vulnerable Senate Democrats need the extra time to fundraise and go home to campaign.

Senate Democrats are defending 10 seats in states Trump won last cycle. Republican senators in tough reelection fights would also pay a price for the lost weekends, but most of the top Senate seats most likely to flip parties are currently occupied by Democrats.

Republicans pushing for more action on the nominations say it's high time to hold Democrats accountable for their delaying tactics.

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.

Democrats have successfully stalled a final Senate confirmation vote on more than 70 nominees who have made it through the thorough the committee vetting process.

White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short in mid-March said the Democrats' unprecedented delaying tactics are "essentially weaponizing a Senate procedure" and calculated that at the current rate of confirmations, it would take more than 11 years to confirm Trump administration nominees.

McConnell's tougher stance may already be producing results. Before leaving on its two-week Spring recess, the Senate readied six nominations. Democrats did not require 30 hours of debate they could have on the first nominee set for a vote: Claria Boom, nominated to be a U.S. district court judge.

The true test will be if Democrats relent on their obstruction of the confirmation of Richard Grenell, who Trump nominated to be ambassador to Germany in September, and several other well-qualified nominees who have been waiting for months for their confirmations.

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.

If Democrats do not relent, Republicans could decide to blow up the Senate rules to limit the amount of time Democrats can delay confirmation votes.

Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) is pursuing a "gridlock reform" plan that would require the Senate to reduce the rule allowing for a maximum of 30 hours of Senate debate for every presidential nominee down to eight hours, excluding cabinet secretaries.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), who is next in line to chair the Rules Committee, reportedly plans to bring Lankford's proposal up for a panel vote in May.

A Lankford spokesman on Tuesday said his boss is "optimistic about the possibility" that the Senate Rules Committee could hold a vote on his proposal "soon."

"The rules of the Senate are not something that we can just complain about and do nothing about," Lankford said at a Rules Committee meeting in December.

Lankford argued that the Democrats' dilatory tactics were preventing the Senate from doing its job to confirm Trump's nominees and also pass legislation.

"The challenge is we have learned as a body that we are now either going to do nominees or we're going to do legislation, but we can't do both," he said. "Because if the calendar if full for a week on three nominations you'll never get to any legislation."

McConnell last fall signaled that he is open to Lankford's proposal or others like it.

While the GOP leader has said he wants to maintain the Senate 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."