Congress

Could Democratic presidential hopefuls help lessen the Senate logjam?

Republicans hope rules change push appeals to folks who would need cooperative chamber

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., is leading the effort to change the Senate's rules for debate time on many presidential nominations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With the shutdown over, Senate Republicans may restart efforts to change rules and reduce the time it takes to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees — and they’re hoping Democratic presidential hopefuls will help them make it happen. 

When the Senate GOP huddled for its annual issues conference this month at Nationals Park, the nomination backlog was on the agenda. Sen. James Lankford — the leading advocate for restoring an agreement in place during the 113th Congress that reduced debate time after a filibuster was broken for many lower-level nominees — briefed his colleagues on the status of his discussions.

Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an interview that there was again momentum toward reviving the more limited debate rules, at least among the GOP.

“Though I’m very aware for a long time it didn’t operate this way, if we end up operating under this new practice for four years, I have every reason to believe that it will be the practice from here on out,” Lankford said. “The longer we have this same problem ... we get stuck into doing it a new way.” 

Lankford said he anticipated a future Democratic president would face the same problem experienced by Trump, with many of the hundreds of sub-Cabinet nominations simply stalling out because there is not enough floor time.

“It only takes one senator to request a cloture vote, and so it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be at least one Republican that would look at each of those different nominees that come up, after what was done for four years to a Republican president,” Lankford said.

The Lankford proposal moved through the Rules and Administration Committee in the last congress on a party-line vote, but both he and Sen. Lamar Alexander seem to be trying to appeal to the many Senate Democrats who are now either exploring or officially running for president.

“There are so many Democrats running for president there might be a near majority for this idea on the Democratic caucus, just out of self-interest,” Alexander said last week, theorizing that if a Democrat thought he or she could win, they would not want their nominees languishing in Senate limbo if they could do something about it. 

The 2013 bipartisan agreement, which the Tennessee Republican was instrumental in crafting with current Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and other members of the Rules and Administration Committee, reduced to eight hours the window for post-cloture debate on most executive branch positions except for the Cabinet level, with district judge nominees getting just two hours.

But that all came before the Senate Democrats deployed the “nuclear option” in November 2013 to reduce the vote threshold for limiting debate on nominees to a simple majority.

This year, Lankford is making a similar argument as Alexander about the effect of changing the rules if a Democrat should win the presidency next year.

“I would hope that there’s Democrats — many Democratic colleagues that are running for the presidency right now — would look at this in a different way and say if they win the White House in 2020, and they occupy the White House in 2021, they’re going to want to be able to hire their own staff,” he said. “Which has been the right of every president up until now.”

“This doesn’t get better long-term,” Lankford said.

Roll Call contacted numerous Democratic senators who have been laying the groundwork for runs for the White House or have already announced 2020 campaigns. None of them had offered a response to Lankford’s suggestion as of press time. So far, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California has announced she is running, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have formed exploratory committees. Other Democratic senators are in the mix as well but have not taken such steps. 

But given the level of opposition to the presidential appointments of Trump within the Democratic base, supporting a plan that would make it easier for the current president to fill jobs within his administration might prove beyond unpopular on the 2020 campaign trail.

Lankford said exact timing would be up to Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt of Missouri and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who also happens to serve on the Rules panel).

And Alexander said he has not given up hope of resurrecting a bipartisan deal that would avoid a “nuclear option” action — or changing the chamber’s precedents with a simple majority vote — on the Senate floor.

“My strong preference is that we do what we worked together to do in 2013, which was to have a bipartisan agreement to limit the amount of debate on sub-Cabinet and district judges,” Alexander said. “I did that as a Republican senator for a Democratic president, working with Democrats like Sen. Schumer. We got a good bipartisan vote.”

The vote in the summer of 2013 was 78-16, in favor of the short-term changes in the operating procedures. If that sort of agreement cannot be reached again, Alexander indicated that Republicans would go it alone.

“The current Democratic obstruction of President Trump — the president’s nominees — is at unprecedented and intolerable levels, and it’s going to change,” Alexander said.

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