Sounds like just the ticket to rebuild his popularity on the right.
As of four days ago, he was considering this. As of this morning, it sounds like he’s all in: No more judges unless and until Bob Corker’s bill on undoing Trump’s “national security” power over tariffs gets a vote on the Senate floor. Which, conceivably, could leave judicial confirmations bottled up for years. If Flake, Corker, and a few other Republicans dig in through November and Democrats shock the world by taking back the Senate, suddenly Chuck Schumer would be in charge of confirming Trump’s nominees. And Democratic payback for the Merrick Garland/Neil Gorsuch brouhaha would be … hoo boy.
“I think myself and a number of senators, at least a few of us, will stand up and say, ‘Let’s not move any more judges until we get a vote, for example, on tariffs,’ ” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos on Sunday…
“On something like tariffs, for example, the Senate ought to bring legislation to the floor that says, ‘Hey, we’re going to push back here.’ … Canada, Mexico are not national security threats,” Flake said. “The European Union exporting cars to the U.S. does not represent a national security threat, and we ought to push back. And if we don’t, why are we there?”
Good question. Why are they there?
Flake’s threat is both more and less than it seems. “More” because of what I said above — if he and Corker are serious, they could really screw Trump and the conservative base by gambling with judicial vacancies. Neither of the two have anything to lose by doing so, as they’re both leaving the Senate in January. And if you watch carefully below, Flake’s not talking about putting a hold on any nominees, which would temporarily prevent them from getting a vote. He’s talking about letting them come to the floor and then voting no, which would kill the nomination. (Unless Mitch McConnell insisted on a revote later, I guess.) He’s playing hardball and there’s little anyone can do to stop him.
But there’s also less here than meets the eye. For one thing, red-state Democrats might be particularly inclined right now to vote yes on Trump’s judges with the midterms bearing down. Flake’s and Corker’s no votes could be replaced by Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly, at least until November. After that, things are likely to be easier for McConnell. While it’s possible Democrats will retake the Senate, Republicans are still favored to hold the majority and probably add a few seats. With Corker and Flake gone in January, McConnell would have an easier time rubber-stamping nominees.
Also, note Flake’s demand. He’s not vowing to block Trump’s judges until Congress passes a bill overriding Trump’s “national security” tariffs on Canada, he’s vowing to block them until Congress votes on the bill. All he wants is a vote. That’s still a big ask under the circumstances since it’s likely that Corker’s bill would pass, possibly with the two-thirds majority it would need to overcome a Trump veto. Possibly, but not assuredly: Although all or nearly all Senate Republicans surely agree with Flake on the merits against tariffs, they’ll be terrified of humiliating Trump and enraging his fans by stripping his power to wage trade war, one of his core ambitions as president. For just that reason, even if Corker’s bill passed the Senate Ryan would come under pressure not to bring it to the floor for a vote in the House, knowing that the bill might very well win a two-thirds majority there too. Suddenly the House and Senate GOP would be at war with the president four months out from the big vote, poised to override his veto and nuke his tariff authority. Imagine the tweets. So fraught would that be politically for the GOP that I think McConnell would rather let Flake and Corker bottle up judges for a few months than let the chamber vote on Corker’s bill.
Besides, if worse comes to worst, with Flake bottling up the judges until November and the Dems then pulling off a momentous upset to take the Senate, there’ll still be the lame-duck session to set things right. I think Flake (or at least Corker) would relent at that point and start rubber-stamping judges before Schumer takes over. He’s sufficiently right-wing to prefer Trump’s Republican-approved nominees to the new round of Democrat-approved ones. I think?