WASHINGTON — The “cooling saucer” of the U.S. 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 Wednesday to unilaterally change years-old rules of the chamber with a simple-majority vote. This time, to work through a backlog of President Donald 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 Trump’s nominees.
“There’s no other word but ‘hypocrisy,’ ” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said.
The majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, justified his actions on the Garland nomination, saying Democrats would have done the same thing to a Republican high-court nominee. And he said Democrats started the process in 2003, when they began routinely filibustering a Republican president’s nominees.
McConnell’s move 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 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 Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who is a close ally of 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 to move ahead with most legislation.
“The Senate has changed so dramatically under McConnell’s influence,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the upper chamber. “He is corrupting the Senate into an institution that is more like that House of Lords than what the framers intended. We have walked away from amending, debating and legislating.”
Schumer declared it “a very sad day for the Senate.”
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 expected to approve Roy Kalman Altman to the U.S. 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 McConnell spent most of 2016 blocking Garland’s nomination.
But Wednesday’s precedent opens the way for McConnell to speed up the nominating process for sub-Cabinet-level posts and U.S. 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 McConnell’s hardball style of leadership — said Wednesday’s move represented an attack on institutional norms put in place to ensure full debate.
For Trump, the change is long overdue. For more than a year, Trump and officials in the White House office of legislative affairs have prodded McConnell to invoke what has been referred to on Capitol Hill as a “mini” nuclear option.
But McConnell resisted, in part because of the opposition of two moderates: Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Their opposition ebbed in recent weeks after sporadic talks overseen by McConnell and Schumer to unfreeze some of the nominations fell apart. 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, McConnell, speaking at a second strategy lunch with his conference, blasted 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 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,” McConnell said, according to a person familiar with his remarks.
Fallon did not return a request for comment.
“The only thing stopping a deal is Sen. Mitch McConnell, because Sen. McConnell wants to change the rules,” said Justin Goodman, Schumer’s current spokesman.
Schumer has privately expressed frustration with his recent interactions with McConnell, particularly the majority leader’s unwillingness to even consider a separate deal for nonjudicial appointments that would have left the current process for judges unchanged, according to Democratic aides.
In a recent leadership meeting, Schumer complained that McConnell was offering him a deal that “chopped off four fingers” as opposed to cutting off his whole hand, they said.
Every Senate Democrat vote against the rule change Wednesday. Only one Republican senator, Mike Lee of Utah, opposed it.
“The Senate’s rules protect the rights of the American people by balancing the competing interests of majorities, minorities, and individual senators,” Lee said. “They facilitate the compromise and accountability that are essential to the governing of a large, diverse nation. At this unusually divided moment in our history, Americans need the Senate to serve its deliberative function in our constitutional system.”
Alexander, emerging from a Republican meeting on the rule change Tuesday evening, said that he finally decided to support the move out of frustration, after supporting President Barack Obama’s effort to speed up nominations six years ago.
“Sen. Schumer and I wrote the bill that all the Democrats voted for in 2013,” Alexander said in an interview. “And let me tell you, in 2013 there were a number of Republicans in Tennessee who didn’t like the fact that I was helping President Obama confirm nominees. But I thought it was best for the institution. And today, none of the Democrats are willing to buck their party in the same way to help Mr. Trump.”