While the rest of Washington focused on impeachment proceedings Wednesday, Mitch McConnell successfully pressed forward on a subject that has been the one knockout success for the Republican Senate and President Donald Trump: judges.
Wednesday afternoon, the Senate majority leader forced a deal with Democrats to expedite 11 federal district judge nominations. Before adjourning on Thursday, all were confirmed.
McConnell’s thrust is emblematic of what he sees as his crowning achievement. So far, he has led the charge changing the landscape of the federal courts across the country with a record number of appellate court judges – currently at 50 – and Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
“My motto for the remainder of this Congress is ‘leave no vacancy behind,’” McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday.
McConnell had scheduled procedural votes on nominees coming roughly every two hours. Two votes were held Wednesday before the agreement was reached to speed things along with 11 consecutive votes in the late afternoon.
The threat of keeping senators in extra days or through the weekend is a tactic as old as time, but nevertheless usually yields results. Previous deals cutting short debate and allowing nominees to be approved so senators can go home for recess have been met with liberal unhappiness, however.
Two deals reached last year allowed senators to return home to their states during the middle of the re-election campaign, but in the end it was Democratic incumbents who lost, giving the Republicans the stronger 53-47 majority they enjoy today.
With their majority, Republicans can defeat any Democratic efforts to filibuster, or block a final vote on, any Trump nominee along party lines. And Democrats acknowledge there’s little they can do overall to stop McConnell.
“He’s using his control of the floor and his majority to force votes on a series of judges,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. “He is determined to confirm as many judges as he possibly can. And we are insisting on a roll call vote on every one of them.”
“I wish we would do some legislation,” Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy told CNN. “They had passed over 300 pieces of legislation in the House. Most of it with strong bipartisan support. McConnell won’t even bring them up for a vote.”
“It’s made a sham out of the Senate,” Leahy added. “It’s obviously to try to politicize the judiciary but while they are politicizing the judiciary they are destroying the integrity of the Senate.”
Trump’s work transforming the courts has been the key to his legacy – and potentially keeping his electoral coalition together in 2020.
Ken Starr, the former independent counsel whose investigation of Bill Clinton led to the 1999 impeachment trial, noted that some Republicans look past his personality to his agenda.
“Remember, the Supreme Court appointments; that covers, as we would say, a multitude of sins,” Starr said Wednesday on Fox News.
“One of every four of the US circuit judges in the country have been put on the bench in the last three years,” McConnell told Hewitt. “So we do believe with a second Trump term and a continued Senate Republican majority, we can transform the courts even further.”
Along with the judges on Thursday, lawmakers also approved the $1.4 trillion spending bill.
The district court judges under consideration this week likely won’t draw the same partisan backlash that the 50 appeals court judges and two Supreme Court nominees have.
That’s because at the district level, there is some level of comity between the White House and senators of both parties via the so-called “blue slip,” where senators from each state have a formal say in who fills vacancies. In California, for instance, McConnell told Hewitt that the White House is working with Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris to advance district court nominees.
Senate Republicans, as part of the push to fill the higher-level courts with Trump’s nominees, have done away with the consulting system for the appeals courts.
“They will not all be the same type of judges that we’re doing at the Circuit level where the so-called blue slip, that is the permission slip, is no longer required,” McConnell said of this week’s judges.
The nominees confirmed this week are:
Matthew Walden McFarland for the Southern District of Ohio.
Anuraag Singhal for the Southern District of Florida.
Karen Spencer Marston for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Daniel Mack Traynor for the District of North Dakota.
Jodi W. Dishman for the Western District of Oklahoma.
John M. Gallagher for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Bernard Maurice Jones II for the Western District of Oklahoma.
Mary Kay Vyskocil for the Southern District of New York.
Kea Whetzal Riggs for the District of New Mexico.
Robert J. Colville for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
Lewis J. Liman for the Southern District of New York.
Gary Richard Brown for the Eastern District of New York.
Stephanie Dawkins Davis for the Eastern District of Michigan.
The Senate confirmed McFarland by a 56-38 vote, primarily along party lines, Wednesday. Senators voted to cut off debate, or invoke cloture, on the Singhal nomination as well, before confirming him on Thursday.
Supreme Court in 2020
McConnell also repeated his pledge to push through a new Supreme Court nominee should a vacancy open up in 2020, despite his successful effort in 2016 to block President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.
In 2016, McConnell held up the nomination made in March saying that the it should be decided in that November’s election, which Trump won. He now says the issue is that the president and Senate were controlled by different parties, which in 2020 would not be the case.
“You had to go back to the 1880s to find the last time a Supreme Court vacancy occurring in the middle of a presidential election year was confirmed by a Senate of a different party than the president,” McConnell said Wednesday. “So yes, we would certainly confirm a new justice if we had that opportunity.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated with the results of the confirmation votes.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly contributed to this report.