Senate Republicans have deployed the "nuclear option" in order to speed up the confirmation of hundreds of President Donald Trump's nominees.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., set up a vote Wednesday on a proposed rules change that would dramatically limit the debate time required to confirm district judges and most executive nominations.
The rules change, introduced by Republican Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and James Lankford of Oklahoma, would reduce debate time to up to two hours for most lower-level executive branch posts and district judges after cloture is invoked. Before Wednesday's rule change, nominations faced up to 30 hours of post-cloture debate. Supreme Court and circuit court nominees, Cabinet-level positions and roughly one dozen board and commissions positions are exempt from the rules change.
The shift comes amid Republican frustrations with Democrats, who they have accused of slowing down lower-level and judicial nominations. McConnell on Wednesday claimed the resolution was a way to "restore a functional nominations process for future administrations of both parties." The rules change would benefit both Democrats and Republicans, McConnell argued, declaring the status quo was "laying the foundations of for a dangerous new norm."
McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., engaged in a heated game of finger-pointing, barely able to make eye contact as they sparred over changing the rules in the upper chamber.
Schumer said he was "so sorry that my Republican colleagues have gone along with Sen. McConnell's debasement of the Senate" and blasted the proposed rules change as "disgraceful." "This is a very sad day for the Senate," Schumer said.
McConnell, in response, argued that Republicans had merely followed the Democrat's playbook and pointed fingers at Schumer, who he said was responsible for launching filibusters against former President George W. Bush's nominees.
"He started this whole thing," McConnell proclaimed, pointing at Schumer. "This is not a sad day. This is a glad day."
Two Republican Sens., Mike Lee of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, voted with Democrats to preserve the current rules.
McConnell on Wednesday accused Democrats of "systematic obstruction" as he attempted to drum up support for the rules change on the Senate floor.
"It is time for this sorry chapter to end. It's time to return this body to a more normal and reasonable process for fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities – no matter which party controls the White House," McConnell said. "This is new, and it needs to stop," he added, referring to alleged stalling tactics used by Democrats to delay the confirmation of Trump's nominees.
McConnell infamously denied former President Barack Obama the opportunity to fill a Supreme Court seat left vacant following the death of former Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, setting off a Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and the Republicans' subsequent decision to eliminate the supermajority of 60 votes to confirm judges to the nation's highest court.
"He seems to have completely forgotten the Obama administration," Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said, quoting at times from a McConnell op-ed on nominations "fittingly" published on April Fool's Day. "He led the most famous blockade that's ever happened in the Senate. And that was the blockade of Merrick Garland . . . It was shameful."
Democrats accused Republicans of putting politics and ideology ahead of the values and traditions of the Senate. Schumer argued that conservatives lawmakers were trying to "use the courts to adopt a far-right agenda that Republicans know they cannot enact through the legislative process."
"That is not the Senate we want," Schumer said. "For Leader McConnell to brag about confirming more judges than ever before and then complain about Democratic obstruction and say the process is broken so you have to change the rules is the height of hypocrisy."