Judiciary war escalates: McConnell gives blue slips a pink slip

Get ready for the howls sure to come from Chuck Schumer and Co, but they only have themselves to blame. Almost exactly a month after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that he would not allow Democrats to use the blue-slip process as a stealth filibuster, McConnell has ordered the Judiciary Committee to treat them as strictly advisory. That will free up two Trump nominees for the appellate court, including current Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras.

Fred Barnes reports that McConnell also plans to expedite those confirmations … because he can:

* Confirming judicial nominees has been elevated to a top priority in the Senate. “I decide the priority,” McConnell said in an interview. “Priority between an assistant secretary of State and a conservative court judge—it’s not a hard choice to make.”

And when nominees “come out of committee, I guarantee they will be dealt with,” McConnell said. “Regardless of what tactics are used by Democrats, the judges are going to be confirmed.”

* No longer will “blue slips” be allowed to deny a nominee a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and vote on confirmation. In the past, senators have sometimes barred a nominee from their state by refusing to return their slip to the committee, thus preventing a hearing and confirmation.

“The majority”—that is, Republicans—will treat a blue slip “as simply notification of how you’re going to vote, not as an opportunity to blackball,” McConnell told me. The use of blue slips, he noted, is not a Senate rule and has “been honored in the breach over the years.” Now it won’t be honored at all.

McConnell won’t change the 30-hour debate rule, Barnes reports, which Democrats used to great effect on Trump’s earlier Cabinet appointee confirmations to gum up the works. Some conservative activists wanted McConnell to reduce the debate time to eight hours, but for now the 30-hour rule remains. McConnell told Barnes that he can make that work, presumably by scheduling the Senate for continuous session and forcing Democrats to spend their debate time on the graveyard shift.

This definitely escalates the long-running judiciary wars in the Senate, but the blue-slip change just returns it to its usual status quo ante. As I noted a month ago, blue slips have been advisory-only for most of their century-long history. Only for two significant periods has the blue slip served as a one-person stealth filibuster, and technically doesn’t work that way now. According to the rules since 2003, it takes both home-state senators withholding their blue slips to stop a hearing and confirmation, which should have already cleared the path for Stras. Ryan Bounds, on the other hand, has been blocked by both Oregon senators, who claim that Trump didn’t consult with them on the choice.

McConnell and Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley had better start working on these nominations now. Barnes notes that vacancies on the federal bench have risen to 149, and will go up to 166 based on known upcoming resignations and retirements. That gives the Republican majority a potential logjam of almost 5,000 hours of Senate debate time, with a deadline of December 2018. That’s 207.5 days of nothing but predetermined chatter to endure for these positions to get filled, or roughly every other day between now and the end of the 115th Session of Congress. They can’t afford to slip up, blue or not.