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Why Jeff Flake may start blocking Trump's judicial nominees

It took a while, but Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) appears ready to block Trump's judicial nominees and use his leverage.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., stops to speak with a reporter as he arrives for the Senate Republicans' policy luncheon, May 12, 2015. 

It was a small political story that initially went by with minimal attention. The Senate Judiciary Committee was poised to advance one of Donald Trump's judicial nominees, Georgia's Britt Grant, to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, but Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) halted the move before the vote.

It wasn't altogether clear why. "Oh, it's just something I'm working out," Flake told  Roll Call earlier this week.

And what, pray tell, was the Arizona Republican working out? Apparently, Flake is starting to come to terms with just how much leverage he has in the chamber. CNN reported yesterday:

Sen. Jeff Flake is warning that he may block votes on the nominations of all of President Donald Trump's pending appellate court nominees unless he gets favorable action on two issues unrelated to the judiciary.According to one source, Flake wants to spur discussions on travel restrictions to Cuba as well as issues related to tariffs."We're discussing it," the Arizona Republican said in a brief interview with CNN as he came out of an immigration negotiation.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) confirmed to the network that he wouldn't schedule votes on the White House's judicial nominees until Flake lifts his hold.

It's a bold move for the Arizonan -- and it's also overdue.

Flake, perhaps more than any Republican on Capitol Hill, has been quite aggressive in his condemnations of Donald Trump, his agenda, and the "moral vandalism" this president has imposed on the nation. The senator has not, however, taken any meaningful action to stand in Trump's way.

I've long believed that's a mistake, especially for a lawmaker who's poised to retire from Congress anyway. This latest reporting suggests Flake may be coming to a similar conclusion.

The basic legislative arithmetic is hard to ignore: in a 51-49 Senate, Flake can wield great influence. (This is also true of the committee level, with the GOP enjoying an 11-10 majority on the Judiciary Committee.) He knows what Trump and his party want -- as many far-right jurists on the appellate bench as possible -- and the senator knows that Trump and his party will pay a high price to get what they want.

That leaves Flake in a powerful position to demand ... practically anything.

At this point, the senator's plan appears to be in its infancy, and it's probably best to keep expectations in check. We don't yet know, for example, how far Flake is willing to push this posture, or how he'll respond once intra-party pressure increases.

But if the Republican lawmaker is serious about exploiting his leverage, Flake's gambit may prove to be a very important development.