Republicans will try to change U.S. Senate rules to push Trump nominations

By Richard Cowan and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans in the U.S. Senate will attempt to alter its rules next week in order to accelerate the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s nominees for some judgeships and sub-Cabinet level positions in his administration.

Democrats, who control 47 of the Senate’s 100 seats, have slowed the confirmation of scores of such appointees.

Historically, the Senate has provided more procedural protections for the minority party than in the House of Representatives in the hope of forcing more-reasoned legislating, and fostering compromise.

But both parties over the last several years have complained that the rules were being misused, leading to gridlock.

Before they lost their majority control of the Senate at mid-term elections in 2014, Democrats also took steps to speed up most executive and judicial branch nominations by limiting the influence of the minority party.

Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell aims to stage a vote early next week to reduce the time allowed for debating nominations from 30 hours to two hours.

“It would allow the administration, finally, two years into its tenure, to staff numerous important positions that remain unfilled, with nominees who have been languishing,” the Republican leader said on Thursday.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer fired back saying, “This is just another step in his (McConnell’s) effort to limit the rights of the minority and cede authority to the administration.”

If the rules change is made, it would apply to district court judges, the lowest rung of the judiciary, and would not affect nominations for vacancies in the Supreme Court and appeals courts.

It would also not apply to cabinet-level executive positions and some independent boards and commissions, McConnell noted.

In 2017, McConnell changed the rules to make it easier to confirm Supreme Court justices by requiring only a simple majority vote in order to overcome Democratic opposition to Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Initially, McConnell would need the cooperation of Democrats to win the rules change.

An aide to McConnell would not comment on whether Republicans would employ a more partisan parliamentary maneuver to accomplish the change – one that could be done without any Democratic support – if his initial gambit fails.

Despite McConnell’s protests of Democratic intransigence, during the first two years of Trump’s presidency the White House has focused on filling influential appeals court judgeships – nominations that would not be subject to the rules change.

(Click here to see a graphic showing Trump’s appeals court appointments:

Trump, a Republican, has so far won confirmation of 37 appeals court judges in little over two years, including seven in the last month. By comparison, Democratic President Barack Obama appointed 55 appeals court judges in the entire eight years he was in office. He appointed 16 in his first two years, compared with Trump’s 30.

For district court nominees, the lowest rung in the judiciary, Trump has appointed 53 during his first two years in office, while Obama won 44 at the same point in his presidency.

Trump has also installed two Supreme Court justices, as did Obama in his first two years in office.

McConnell enraged Democrats in 2016 when he refused to hold confirmation hearings or a vote on Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

At the time, McConnell said that choice should be made by the winner of the November 2016 presidential election, which turned out to be Trump.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)