The veteran Iowa Republican is under pressure to ditch the chamber's "blue slip" tradition that permits members of the minority party to have significant input into which judicial nominees are confirmed.
"The Chairman of the Judiciary Committee will determine how to apply the blue slip courtesy for federal judicial nominees, as has always been the practice," said Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley who confirmed the Iowa Republican doesn't intend to make changes. "Over the years, chairmen have applied the courtesy differently, but the spirit of consultation has always remained."
Frustrated at what they complain is the slow pace of confirmations for Trump's judicial picks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several conservative judicial activist groups have called publicly for a change to the blue slip practice. The blue slips are literally blue pieces of paper that by tradition -- but not Senate rule -- must be returned to the judiciary committee by the home state senators for a nominee, regardless of the senators' parties, before a confirmation hearing can be scheduled.
The conservative Weekly Standard published an interview with McConnell Wednesday
suggesting the GOP leaders had decided to get rid of blue slips. McConnell aides later clarified that it is McConnell's personal preference to end the practice but that a final decision would have to be made in consultation with the Judiciary Committee and the full GOP conference.
McConnell and others complain Democrats are abusing the practice by not returning the blue slips to bottle up the nominees. But the Grassley aide's statement suggested otherwise.
"Under Chairman Grassley's leadership, blue slips have been returned from home state senators on both sides of the aisle, including from seven Democrats for President Trump's circuit court nominees," said the statement. "This process has yielded hearings for 24 of President Trump's judicial nominees, including nominees for 13 district court vacancies and eight circuit court vacancies. The committee has scheduled a hearing next week for five additional judicial nominees."
The statement said Grassley, "expects Senators and the President to continue engaging in consultation when selecting judicial nominees, and that, as in the past, any abuses of the courtesy would be addressed on a case-by-case basis."
Grassley suggested the bigger problem lies on the Senate floor, which is controlled by McConnell, where only seven of 17 nominees reported out of committee have gotten votes. Grassley has called for the Senate to skip recesses (in fact, senators are away this week) until the backlog is resolved.
If Grassley continues to resist changes to the blue slip, it could further aggravate the friction between establishment Republicans and Trump's political base as has been on display this week in the feud between Trump and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker
. McConnell's vocal push to change the blue slip could inoculate from some of that criticism. Some conservative groups are wary of McConnell because they don't believe he's done enough to advance Trump's agenda.
Filibusters for judicial nominees have already been significantly weakened so the majority party can confirm most without votes from the minority. That means the blue slip is one of the last vestiges of bipartisanship in the judicial confirmation process.
In response to McConnell's Weekly Standard interview, liberal senators and interest groups issued statements urging Republicans not to change the blue slip.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pleaded with Grassley to reject McConnell's wish.
"The Senate has fewer and fewer mechanisms that create bipartisanship and bring people to an agreement. The blue slips are one of them. It's just a shame that Senator McConnell is willing to abandon it for circuit court judges," Schumer said. "We hope that Chairman Grassley, who has always believed in the traditions of the Senate, will resist Senator McConnell's request."