Historic Obstruction or Success in Senate? Yes

McConnell decries debate time delays, praises success in confirmations

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Democrats are being historically obstructionist, even as he boasts of the record number of nominees confirmed by the chamber. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used his leadership time on Monday to criticize Democrats for making 2017 “an historic year of partisan obstruction” by using the full 30 hours of debate permitted under the rules on nominations. But McConnell’s complaint, echoed by other senior Republicans and President Donald Trump, comes as those same leaders have been trumpeting their success in confirming a record number of 12 federal circuit court judges to the bench, as well as the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. 

The Kentucky Republican and his allies say the Democrats are purposely gumming up the works to prevent Trump from staffing the executive and judicial branches. McConnell pointed to his having to file procedural cloture motions to limit debate on the four pending district court nominations that members are considering in the chamber this week. 

“Their goal is to waste the Senate’s time and prevent the president from promptly filling judicial vacancies,” McConnell said Monday. “Even for uncontroversial judges who went on to unanimous or near-unanimous confirmation votes, my colleagues across the aisle used every possible procedural roadblock to delay and drag their heels. Now 2018 is starting off the same way.”

It is true that Democratic senators have been requiring full debate on many of Trump’s nominations, though not all. But it is worth noting how McConnell managed the judicial confirmation process in the final years of the previous administration. 

Watch: How Congressional Debate Is Supposed to Work (and How It Really Works)

During President Barack Obama’s last two years in office, McConnell was newly installed as majority leader and lawmakers confirmed 20 judges to lifetime appointments.

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, there are 124 vacancies on the district court level, and 25 district court nominees are pending in the Senate. Six district court judges have been confirmed by the Senate so far since Trump’s inauguration.

By the end of this week, four more district court judges are expected to be confirmed. That’s one-fifth of the entirety of Obama’s lifetime judicial nominee confirmations in the 114th Congress. What’s more, McConnell refused to allow so much as a hearing for Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to fill the seat of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. Holding that seat open allowed Trump to nominate, and the Senate to confirm, Gorsuch. 

Senators voted 89-1 on Monday to limit debate on William Campbell Jr. to be a judge for the Middle District of Tennessee; confirmation on his nomination could wrap up soon. Then, lawmakers will move on to Thomas Parker, who is Trump’s pick to be a district judge for the Western District of Tennessee.

Parker, a partner in the Memphis office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, represents clients in civil litigation and criminal matters in government investigations, along with those accused of white collar crime. Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee introduced Parker at his September hearing and highlighted the nominee’s previous work as an assistant U.S. attorney. 

No questions were posed by committee Democrats, illustrating McConnell’s point that the minority party has no issue with most of the nominees’ qualifications for the bench.

Apparently so the nominee didn’t “feel neglected,” Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas directed at Parker the only question he got at the hearing, asking the nominee to define “judicial activism.”

Parker responded that issues need “to be decided based on the law, and not on any personal belief that the judge may have going in.” 

Once action on the two potential Tennessee district judges is done, the other two nominees GOP leaders intend to finish before the end of the week are Michael Brown for the Northern District of Georgia and Walter Counts for the Western District of Texas.

On Monday on the floor, McConnell implored Democrats to let the Senate function smoothly, “so we can attend to more of the people’s business.” 

When asked, a spokesman for McConnell did not offer examples of legislation ready for floor consideration if Democrats were not requiring cloture votes on Trump’s judicial nominees.

At his final media availability last year, McConnell suggested that a bipartisan bill to revise the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul law could be an early item, and it has already been reported out of the Senate Banking Committee.

Another possible item is an anti-sex-trafficking measure pushed by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, which could be ready for floor time sometime before the end of the month, but isn’t yet.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.