Senate Republicans Go ‘Nuclear’ to Speed Up Trump Confirmations – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The “cooling saucer” of the United States Senate keeps going into the microwave.

For the third time in six years, the majority party in the Senate detonated the so-called nuclear option on Wednesday to unilaterally change years-old rules of the chamber with a simple-majority vote. This time, to work through a backlog of President Trump’s judicial and administration nominations, Republicans cut the time between ending debate and a final confirmation vote on executive-branch nominees and district court judges from 30 hours to two.

The change was a provocative step that reignited a bitter partisan fight over presidential nominations that has raged for a decade and spanned presidencies from both parties. Democrats dwelled at length over the blockade that stopped Judge Merrick B. Garland from ascending to the Supreme Court in the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency to angrily question how Republicans could complain about the handling of Mr. Trump’s nominees.

“There’s no other word but ‘hypocrisy,’” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.

The majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, justified his actions on the Garland nomination, saying Democrats would have done the same thing to a Republican Supreme Court nominee. And he said Democrats started the process in 2003, when they began routinely filibustering a Republican president’s nominees.

Mr. McConnell’s move on Wednesday was intended to break the Democratic blockade over dozens of judicial and sub-cabinet nominations sent to the Senate by the Trump administration and to appease Mr. Trump, who has been badgering him to take such a step for months.

“We had hoped the Democrats would negotiate, but their base will roast them alive if they supported” a compromise deal unblocking Trump nominees, said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who is a close ally of Mr. McConnell.

But the one-party rule change — which followed maneuvers by Democrats in 2013 to end the 60-vote threshold for most judges and executive-branch nominees, and by Republicans in 2017 to end the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees — knocked down another pillar of Senate custom that separated it from the majority-rule House. And it took the chamber one step closer to ending the defining procedural bulwark of the Senate, the 60-vote requirement for moving ahead with most legislation.

“The Senate has changed so dramatically under McConnell’s influence,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber. “He is corrupting the Senate into an institution that is more like the House of Lords than what the framers intended. We have walked away from amending, debating and legislating.”

Mr. Schumer declared it “a very sad day for the Senate.”

Mr. McConnell answered, “This is not a sad day; this is a glad day.”

“We know you don’t like Donald Trump, but he won an election and he is entitled” to “set up” his government, he continued.

Under the new rules, the Senate approved the nomination of Jeffrey Kessler to be assistant secretary of commerce. It was then to approve Roy Kalman Altman to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Wednesday’s rule change was not as sweeping as the 2013 move, made when Democrats controlled the chamber, to abolish the 60-vote threshold on most nominees. Nor was it as provocative as 2017, when the Republican majority extended that 51-vote confirmation threshold to the Supreme Court after Mr. McConnell spent most of 2016 blocking Judge Garland’s nomination.

But Wednesday’s precedent opens the way for Mr. McConnell to speed up the nominating process for sub-cabinet-level posts and Federal District Court judges, appointments that represent as many as 80 percent of administration nominees. Democrats say that by limiting the time between cutting off debate on a nominee and voting on final confirmation, the Senate loses time needed to vet nominees.

Senate Democrats — who have been marginalized by Mr. McConnell’s hardball style of leadership — said Wednesday’s move represented an attack on institutional norms put in place to ensure full debate.

For Mr. Trump, the change is long overdue. For more than a year the White House, spurred on by Mr. Trump and officials in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, has prodded Mr. McConnell to invoke what has been referred to on Capitol Hill as a “mini” nuclear option.

But Mr. McConnell resisted, in part because of the opposition of two moderate Republicans, Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Their opposition ebbed in recent weeks after sporadic talks overseen by Mr. McConnell and Mr. Schumer to unfreeze some of the nominations fell apart. Mr. Trump expressed his frustration over the logjam during his hourlong appearance at the Republicans’ weekly lunch in the Capitol last week.

“This is crazy,” he said, according to two people in the room. “We have all these people, ambassadors, who have put their whole lives on hold” waiting to be confirmed.

A day later, Mr. McConnell, speaking at a second strategy lunch with his conference, blasted Mr. Schumer and claimed he was avoiding a compromise out of fear that he would be publicly attacked by liberals in his party.

He singled out Mr. Schumer’s own former spokesman, Brian Fallon, who now leads a progressive coalition that lobbies against the appointment of conservative judges.

“Chuck won’t make a deal because he’s afraid of Brian Fallon,” Mr. McConnell said, according to a person familiar with his remarks.

Mr. Fallon did not respond to a request for comment.

“The only thing stopping a deal is Senator Mitch McConnell, because Senator McConnell wants to change the rules,” said Justin Goodman, Mr. Schumer’s current spokesman.

Mr. Schumer has privately expressed frustration with his recent interactions with Mr. McConnell, particularly the majority leader’s unwillingness to even consider a separate deal for nonjudicial appointments. In a recent leadership meeting, Mr. Schumer complained that Mr. McConnell was offering him a deal that “chopped off four fingers” as opposed to cutting off his whole hand, Senate Democratic aides said.

Every Senate Democrat voted against the rule change on Wednesday. Two Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah and Ms. Collins, also opposed it.

“The Senate’s rules protect the rights of the American people by balancing the competing interests of majorities, minorities and individual senators,” Mr. Lee said.

The actual nominations were less controversial than the rule, and a handful of Democrats crossed the aisle to vote for Mr. Altman.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. Schumer, who bear no great affection for each other, engaged in an uncommonly emotional duel on the Senate floor — holding in rapt attention two dozen senators who, in near unison, deposited their iPhones on their desks or laps to watch.

At one point, Mr. Schumer, speaking from a prepared text, turned to confront Mr. McConnell directly, accusing the leader of abusing “the brute power of the majority” to push the change.

“I’m sorry my Republican colleagues have gone along with Senator McConnell’s debasement of the Senate,” he said.

Mr. McConnell sat impassively at his desk a few feet away as Mr. Schumer spoke. He stared down at the carpet and fussed with his shirt cuffs, wearing a wry, mocking grin.

When he stood to defend himself, his face betrayed the strain, gradually reddening into a crimson blush that spanned from cheekbone to jaw, as he accused Democrats, under the leadership of “a fella named Chuck Schumer,” for weaponizing the filibuster over the past 15 years.

“He started the whole thing!” Mr. McConnell said, turning to face Mr. Schumer.