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McConnell eyes new 'nuclear option' to advance Trump nominees

Democrats already can't filibuster Donald Trump's nominees. For Mitch McConnell, that's not good enough: he wants to confirm Trump's nominees faster.
Image: Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell (C) walks to his office after leaving the Senate floor following votes on a package of nominations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 03 August 2017. 

In recent years, the Senate ended the ability to launch filibusters against judicial nominees: if a presidential-backed jurist has majority support, he or she is elevated to a lifetime position on the federal bench.

But for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), that's not quite good enough. He doesn't just want Republicans to confirm Trump judges and other nominees; as Politico reported yesterday, the GOP leader wants to be able to do so much faster.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday moved one step closer to changing the Senate rules to speed up the confirmation of most of President Donald Trump's nominees.The procedural move inches McConnell closer to using the nuclear option.The Senate resolution, approved by the Senate Rules Committee in February, would limit the debate time for executive branch nominees and District Court judges but would not apply to Cabinet or Supreme Court nominees.... In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted Democrats for "unprecedented obstruction" when it comes to noncontroversial nominees and said the resolution is a way "to restore the Senate's tradition in this area."

For now, let's put aside McConnell's breathtaking hypocrisy -- because if there's any human alive who should avoid whining about "unprecedented obstruction" and the inherent value of Senate "traditions," it's the senior senator from Kentucky.

Let's instead focus on the practical implications. Under the chamber's existing rules, once a nominee is cleared for consideration on the Senate floor -- he or she has cleared committee and advanced after a motion to proceed -- there's a 30-hour window. The point, at least in theory, is to allow the Senate's members to engage in debate, hoping to persuade their colleagues to their way of thinking.

In the contemporary Senate, however, these debates are not real. Some members may give speeches on a nominee, but the chamber is usually largely empty at the time. To the extent that there's arm-twisting and attempts at persuasion, it happens behind the scenes -- not with great oratory on the Senate floor.

But for members in the minority, that 30-hour window is an opportunity, not necessarily to win the debate, but to slow the process down. For example, if Senate Republicans want to confirm a handful of Trump nominees, Senate Democrats can -- and routinely do -- take every opportunity to drag things out as long as the rules allow. With this in mind, to confirm three nominees could take nearly a week.

And so, McConnell and his conference have decided to use the so-called nuclear option -- in effect, changing the rules through majority fiat -- to shrink the window.

Instead of 30 hours of debate, there will be two.

It's worth clarifying that the change wouldn't apply to all nominees. Cabinet nominees and appellate-court nominees, for example, would remain the same. But district-court nominees and lower-level executive-branch nominees would benefit from an expedited process.

Yes, if/when Democrats ever reclaim the majority and also control the White House, they'd be able to take advantage of this, too. But in the meantime, assuming McConnell & Co. pull the trigger on this gambit next week, the current Senate Republican majority, which has already excelled in confirming Trump's nominees, will be able to move even faster.

Postscript: If this sounds at all familiar, Senate Dems briefly experimented with a two-hour window in 2013, but it was a temporary shift. The current proposal would make a permanent change.