Senate goes nuclear again, speeding up Donald Trump’s nominations

GOP senators voted Wednesday to effectively change the rules by setting a new precedent on debate time

Wednesday’s procedural moves by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, right, drastically cut the amount of debate time for many judicial and executive nominees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Republicans moved ahead with deploying the “nuclear option” again Wednesday, this time following through on an effort to cut down on debate time for most of President Donald Trump’s nominees.

In an exercise that had far less suspense than when then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, made the move back in 2013, the Senate voted, 48-51, overturning the ruling of the presiding officer and setting a new precedent declaring that the remaining debate time for Jeffrey Kessler to be an assistant secretary of Commerce was two hours. A “no” vote was to overturn the presiding officer and establish the two-hour limit. 

Senate rules had allowed for a maximum of 30 hours after cutting off debate, so the cut in deliberation time is drastic.

All Democrats voted against the effort put forward by GOP leadership. They were joined by Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.

The vote to set a new precedent was just the most recent use of the “nuclear option.” It is called that because it changes the way the Senate does business by a simple majority, avoiding the need for proponents to secure the support of supermajorities of senators that filibuster rules typically require. 

Just before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky made the appeal, the Senate had voted to invoke cloture on the nomination, short-circuiting any filibusters. Under the old rules, there would then be a ceiling of up to 30 hours of additional debate time.

That’s what McConnell and other members of his conference were seeking to cut down for lower-level executive branch and federal judicial nominees, claiming Democrats were just delaying votes on such nominees for the sake of delaying. The Senate had voted on limiting debate on taking up a resolution Tuesday that could have accomplished the same goal on a bipartisan basis, but it fell well short of 60 votes.

Once Kessler is confirmed, “the nuclear option” will be used for the second time in the same day, after a cloture vote on Trump’s nomination of Roy Kalman Altman to be a federal judge in Florida’s Southern District.

The process needs to be bifurcated, as Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Bluntexplained Tuesday, because Republican senators do not want to do away with the 30 hours of post-cloture debate on all presidential nominations like those to the Cabinet or to federal courts of appeals.

“We don’t want to change the 30 hours for the things that really have been 30 hours ... so it can’t just be one sledgehammer,” the Missouri Republican told reporters.

However, with Reid having led Democrats to get rid of the supermajority requirement for limiting debate on most nominees, including most federal judges, and McConnell following that up with a similar partisan rules change to get Neil M. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court — there is growing concern that it is just a matter of time before the rest of the executive calendar (that is, Cabinet, Supreme Court and circuit court nominees) may be next to see shrunken debate time.

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