Leahy Threatens to Change Judiciary Panel Rules to Fight Republican Obstruction (Updated)

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 4:21 p.m. | Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy signaled Wednesday that he's open to changing the way his committee handles nominations after facing another procedural blockade from Republicans.

This time, GOP senators are enforcing the Senate's rule that, among other things, prevents committees from meeting more than two hours into the Senate's day, to keep the Vermont Democrat's Judiciary panel from holding an afternoon hearing on judicial nominations.

"Just last week, Republicans prevented the Judiciary Committee from holding an executive business meeting to consider 18 highly qualified nominees, including two Texas U.S. Marshals. Those two nominees should have been approved by the Committee last month, but Republicans failed to attend the meeting to report their nominations. As Chairman of the Judiciary Com­mittee, I have consistently shown my commitment to work with all Senators to process nominations," Leahy said in a statement. "This obstruction sets back the bipartisan cooperation we have seen in recent weeks on such legislative matters as the budget, the defense authorization bill, and the Farm Bill. If this obstruction continues with respect to judicial nominees, I will be forced to reconsider long-held policies that have upheld the rights of the minority party in this process."

To be sure, the Republican moves are in response to last month's action by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his caucus, to set a new precedent using the "nuclear option" stating that most nominations only require simple majorities to overcome the risk of a filibuster.

Leahy has held firm to a number of committee practices, the most notable of them being steadfast adherence to a "blue slip" procedure that requires both home-state senators to provide consent to the committee moving forward to consider judicial nominees in their states, regardless of party. He's previously indicated that he hoped he would not have to change his process in the aftermath of the nuclear option.

Now, the door is certainly open to seeing Leahy change that practice, which would make it easier to get nominees through to the Senate floor for confirmation from Republican states. In his statement, Leahy noted that nominees and their families traveled from across the country for today's hearing.

"Home state Senators were consulted with respect to the nominees scheduled to appear before the Committee today who, when confirmed, will fill vacancies in California, Maine and Maryland, and an emergency vacancy in Kansas," Leahy said. "The families of these nominees invested time and personal expense to travel to Washington for this hearing, losses they will never recover. This escalating obstruction undermines the Senate's constitutional responsibility of advice and consent."

Update 4:21 p.m.

Leahy's ranking member, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, issued a statement responding to Leahy's comments, noting that a committee business meeting the Republicans didn't attend last month fell on the same day that Reid invoked the "nuclear option."

"There's no doubt that after the Democrats broke the rules to change the rules, it's going to be harder to get things done. There is only one party that voted for the irresponsible rules change," Grassley said. "And, the fact of the matter is that given the atmosphere the Democrats created by invoking the nuclear option, nominations are going to be given added scrutiny.

Grassley repeated Republican arguments that the judicial nominations have moved along on a regular basis.

"Now, they are resorting to new threats at the committee level. It's a sad commentary on the Democrats' rule of the Senate and the Obama administration. They are slowly but surely taking the world's greatest deliberative body and moving towards a majoritarian body, all in the name of rubberstamping the President’s extremely unpopular regulatory agenda," Grassley said.