There’s an effort quietly picking up steam in the marble halls of the Capitol to flip the Founders’ vision of government on its head. While it’s not as sexy as all of President Donald Trump’s alleged affairs, the subtle changes under consideration could potentially have a bigger impact on your life than the first lo-fi porn you watched.
Vice President Mike Pence came to the Capitol last week to personally relay to Senate Republicans the president’s growing frustration with the slow pace of the Senate’s confirmation process. On Tuesday the White House got some in-house help from Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) who laid out his proposal during a closed-door meeting of Republican senators.
The blueprint that’s picking up steam within the GOP is to drastically expedite executive branch nominees, including on many young, extremely ideological judges who will be appointed for life and have a say on everything from your right to obtain contraceptives to where you can buy a wedding cake. Experts say these recent hot button court cases are just the beginning of a coming wave of politically tinged cases that will be winding through the nation’s judiciary after Trump and the GOP leave their imprint on the nation’s third branch of government.
The serious reemergence of the “nuclear option”—which means the majority party in the Senate can completely bypass the minority—has Democrats and some senior Republicans nervous their party will follow former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s footsteps who was the last leader to blow up the Senate’s long-standing norms.
When Mitch McConnell was then minority leader, he slow-walked, stalled and outright blocked an array of former President Barack Obama’s nominees, so Reid flipped the switch and detonated the nuclear option in the Senate. That enabled most every executive branch nominee to be confirmed by a mere 51 votes. The nuclear fallout from that move still hangs over the Senate, and it seems the GOP is inching closer to launching their own nuke.
“I think if they don’t agree it’s possible that there will be an attempt to do the nuclear option—I don’t think we’re there yet,” a senior Republican senator told The Daily Beast on background. “Do I think ultimately the United States Senate at some point gets to a 50 vote margin? I do. I really do. We just keep chipping away…I think that’s where we end up within a decade.”
As Joe Biden once said, that’s a “Big Fucking Deal.”
But there’s a push to make the slow-moving Senate behave more like the rabid House these days. While Reid and Democrats opened the door for back in 2013, their deal was bipartisan and it exempted Supreme Court justices from the lower threshold. After souring the well even further by blocking Obama from placing Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court, the GOP blew up precedent yet again and deployed the nuclear option to get conservative Merrick Garland his lifetime appointment to the High Court. Now Republicans are crying out for even further changes.
‘We’re trying to figure out how to be able to resolve this, and it’s not just now, it’s from here on out because this doesn’t get better. That’s the issue,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) told The Daily Beast.
Lankford contended this rift has to be overcome now or it never will be.
“What’s happening now to a Republican president is four times more [than]…what we did to President Obama. It will be four times more when there’s the next Democrat president, so the gridlock that’s happening here on the Hill is spreading out to all of government now and that’s not healthy for us,” Lankford said.
While Lankford’s proposal is being resisted by many Democrats, some prominent Republicans think his proposal falls short or is even weak.
“I’ve been recommending for quite some time that we should change the rules of the Senate to really limit debate,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told The Daily Beast.
Johnson chairs of the Homeland Security Committee. In his role as a chairman he has proudly advocated that Senate committees—a tiny subset of the larger Senate body—should be given the bulk of the responsibility for approving or rejecting the president’s nominees.
“The committees do a really good job vetting nominees, they really do,” Johnson continued. “You could convince me to really limit debate; I mean, just bring it up and vote.”
The Obama-era ushered in an unprecedented level of obstruction from Republicans, but the sands have shifted and now Democrats are playing an unparalleled level of defense. Still, senior Democrats brush off complaints from their Republican colleagues—both inside and outside of the White House—that they’re slow walking judicial or executive branch nominees.
“I don’t know that they have a problem. It seems to me that we’ve been doing nothing but voting on judges,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told The Daily Beast. She added that Democrats have rightly been attempting to slow-walk or outright block many Trump nominees, especially on judicial nominees.
“My impression is that they are younger—which means they last longer—they’re very conservative and some of them do not have much experience,” Feinstein said.
Besides lowering the threshold for confirming Supreme Court nominees from 60 to 51, Republicans also have done away with the long standing Senate practice of allowing local senators to sign off on the judges within their jurisdiction, known as Blue Slips. That has many Democrats fearing the GOP is going to drop the hammer and upend long-standing Senate norms.
“I’ve heard those rumors,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told The Daily Beast.
Coons contends the Trump administration is barking up the wrong tree, especially in regards to foreign policy because they have yet to even nominate people for some 25 outstanding ambassadorial posts, including crucial spots like South Korea, South Africa and Turkey, just to name the biggies.
“In the foreign policy space, the administration just hasn’t nominated people. So the idea that you need to change the rules of the Senate in order to accelerate confirmations—we’ve moved them through as fast as anybody has for a number of these nominations,” Coons added. “You can see the cumulative impact. Diplomacy is particularly hierarchical, and in countries where we don’t have an ambassador for a year or more you our folks have a hard time making progress.”
The partisan tit for tat over nominees is more pitched now than ever before, and Democrats fear the GOP is preparing to go much further in order to place a more ideologically extreme slate of nominees in an array of offices. In the past the 60 vote threshold for nominees restrained presidents from both parties and rewarded them for picking more centrist candidates. But now it seems a race is underfoot to reward the extreme wing of the GOP by merely requiring the support of 50 senators to advance a nominee.
“If they want to make another set of rules changes than they should just admit that we are on a downward slope to be a majority rule institution,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told The Daily Beast. “And if we want to be a majority rule institution than let’s make that decision. Maybe it’s a debate that’s worth having.”