McConnell Basks in GOP Victory on Courts

Senate leader looking forward to reshaping federal judiciary

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flashes a thumbs up on April 6 after the Senate invoked the so-called nuclear option that allowed Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch to be confirmed by a simple majority vote. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday that the current vacancies in the U.S. court system will allow President Donald Trump to have the longest impact on the future of the country and vowed to continue to push through his nominees, regardless of any opposition from Democrats.

The comments delivered to the Faith and Freedom Coalition at its conference in Washington are likely to rile Democrats, who blasted the Kentucky Republican last year for refusing to allow even a single hearing for Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

For years when his party was in the minority, McConnell employed the procedural speed bumps at his disposal to slow the flow of Obama’s nominations to the federal court system. When Republicans claimed the majority after the 2014 elections, the flow slowed to a trickle, and the majority leader left dozens of nominees to linger, including Garland.

“The courts — of all the things that we should be able to accomplish with this president and this Senate — the courts have the longest reach into the future,” McConnell said. “We have a significant number of vacancies coming into this administration. The president knows this is a way to have an impact on our country far beyond his tenure in office.”

McConnell recognized the nomination process would be a “tough battle” amid what he called “blind obstruction” by the minority party. 

“The left is on war-footing for just about everything these days and that includes the lower courts,” he said. “They are doing everything they can to tie the Senate in knots. They are forcing procedural hurdles on just about everything.”

Trump on Wednesday sent up a slate of federal court nominations and McConnell said they would give each one a “fair hearing and vote.” Those nominations follow the Senate confirmation of Amul R. Thapar of Kentucky last month to serve as a circuit court judge.

McConnell spoke about the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a common talking point by several political figures at the three-day conference held by the evangelical Christian organization.

In order to push that nomination through, McConnell altered the Senate rules to allow Gorsuch’s confirmation to pass with only a simple majority vote, building upon a change Democrats made in prior years to allow lower court appointments to pass under the same threshold.

He recalled a conversation he had with Gorsuch following his confirmation, during which the new Supreme Court associate justice said he hoped to serve for 20 to 25 years.

“What we had in mind was a lot longer tenure than 20 or 25 years,” McConnell told Gorsuch and said to “think Strom Thurmond” who left the Senate at the age of 100. Thurmond was in fragile health the last several years of his tenure. 

McConnell also touched upon First Amendment rights, an issue he has long championed — largely in the context of campaign finance — and a major topic discussed in his 2016 political memoir titled “The Long Game.”

He said, starting next week, he would launch “a series of speeches in defense of the First Amendment.”

“This conversation will focus on both the contemporary and historical importance of free speech,” McConnell told the conference. “It will encourage Americans to rally in its defense. I hope others join me in the effort.”

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