Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Senate Republican Conference on Tuesday that he now has the votes to invoke the so-called nuclear option to significantly cut back the debate time on nominations, according to a person with direct knowledge of the remarks.
This person also said that McConnell, barring an unforeseen deal with Democrats, plans to move to change Senate rules at some point after next week’s congressional recess.
The rules change has been under consideration for weeks, and GOP leaders have clearly been moving in this direction, but McConnell’s comments at a closed-door lunch for Senate Republicans mark the first time he’d made clear to colleagues that the votes were in place. Republicans have considered taking the action to speed up a nominations process that has been bogged down by Democratic efforts to maximize the current 30 hours of debate allowed under Senate rules after filibusters are broken. Democrats have railed against the idea, which can be implemented with a simple majority vote. It would follow a 2017 rules change pushed by McConnell that lowered the filibuster threshold for Supreme Court nominees.
McConnell has countered that Democrats are engaging in “mindless obstruction.”
The rule change would lower the debate time allowed once a filibuster has been defeated from 30 hours to two hours. The change would apply to almost all judicial and executive branch nominees but not those for high-level positions such as Cabinet officials, federal appellate court judges and the members of the Supreme Court.
Democrats employed similar debate limits when they were last in the majority, ending in 2015, as they pushed through Obama administration nominations. But that rules change – which had bipartisan support – lapsed when that session of Congress ended, which is why Republicans would need to make the change again now.
A bitterly divided Senate Rules Committee approved approved the changes last month along on a party line vote.
Senate Rules Chairman Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican who sponsored the measure, said at the time that Trump’s nominees have faced 128 filibusters by Democrats, many more than the nominees of the several presidents before Trump did combined.
“Presidents deserve to have their teams in place,” Blunt said, noting the changes would apply even if a Democrat won the White House in 2020. “Never before have we seen the level of obstruction in the confirmation process in the first two years of a presidency.”
But Democrats have bristled at the proposal, arguing that despite complaints about the minority party often slow-walking nominees by maximizing the allowable debate time for them, both Trump and McConnell have boasted about the record number of district court and appeals court judges who have been confirmed during Trump’s first two years in office.