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Senator Lankford Releases Podcast on How to Make the Senate Function Again

The Office of Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today released the seventh episode of Lankford’s podcast, The Breakdown with James Lankford. The seventh episode focuses on how to make the Senate function again in regard to the nominations process, which has been grossly delayed over the last two years. During the episode, Lankford discusses the proposal he offered to improve Senate rules, how each president deserves to pick their staff, and how he hopes the change will allow the Senate to function as it is designed.

In February, Lankford and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced a resolution (S. Res. 50) to update the Senate rules for most Senate-confirmed nominees. The resolution would reduce the 30 hours of post-cloture debate time to two hours for most nominees, including many Executive Branch nominees and district court judges, while maintaining 30 hours for high-level nominees, including Supreme Court Justices and Cabinet-level officials. The resolution builds on a standing order introduced by former Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that was in place during the 113th Congress. The resolution passed out of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee in a vote of 10-9. The resolution failed on Tuesday, April 2, with a vote of 51-49, with 60 votes needed to pass. The following day, the Senate instead updated the Senate rules through a series of procedural votes.

For the previous three presidents, there was an average of eight cloture votes in the first two years of a president’s term. However, in the first two years of the Trump Administration, additional debate time was requested on 127 of President Trump’s nominees in the 115th Congress. This has slowed nominations to a glacial pace in the Senate. The Senate works through the confirmation process on more than 1,000 nominees for each new president. If an additional cloture vote is required on each nominee, it could take more than 2,000 days (almost 5.5 years) just for the President’s staff to be confirmed and Judicial Branch vacancies to be filled.  

Excerpts: 

After 2003, we didn’t have anybody [nominee] that moved without 60 votes because suddenly 60 votes showed up as the priority, but prior to 2003, that really wasn’t done. So starting in 2003, there started being a couple of folks that were fought and said, ‘No, you’ve got to get additional 60 votes.’ Then it kind of ramped up more and more from there and started accelerating. But it is a fairly recent phenomenon that has grown so much that in the past two years with President Trump, Democrats have demanded additional cloture votes 128 times on President Trump’s nominees. Now again, you may say, ‘Okay. Great. Well they’re asking for additional debate.’ They’re really not asking for additional debate. What they’re asking for is slowing down the time. They’re preventing the President using this cloture technique to then prevent the President from getting all of his staff, because if you’ve got to have 1,200 people that have to go through nominations, then if you have to take a full day plus another 30 hours to be able to do it—literally 54 hours of time to be able to move someone through the floor—you can’t do it. You can’t get 1,200 staff members through the Senate if each one of them has to get a cloture vote on it and has to go through this long process. 

In 2013 it had grown to a level in the Obama Administration that Republicans and Democrats sat down together and said, ‘We’ve got to form a truce and figure out how to be able to manage this new tool because this is not working well. Let’s find a way to be able to limit time to be able to make sure we can get nominees.’ So Harry Reid, under the Obama Administration, proposed to Republicans and said, ‘Come join us. Let’s reduce the time of debate to two hours for district court judges, eight hours for lower folks, and then 30 hours for cabinet level, Supreme Court, circuit court.’ Republicans joined with Democrats and said, ‘Okay. Let’s form that truce. Let’s resolve it for the years 2013 and 2014 in the Obama Administration to helping President Obama be able to get his nominees and make sure that’s done.’ That was not renewed in 2014, or 2015 and ’16, and so it went away. And then when President Trump was elected in 2016, that became an even bigger fight all a sudden, and all of it came back with vengeance, in fact, with 128 nominees that were blocked. The question then was, ‘How do we solve this?’

Two years ago, I started working with Democrats and said, ‘Okay. In 2013 you asked Republicans to join you to help President Obama to get his nominees. Republicans did that.’ Now I wasn’t in the Senate at that time, but Republicans came and joined and became 78 of 100 people who voted for that in 2013. I took that exact same proposal and said, ‘Let’s do that again. Let’s solve the rules of the Senate and to be able to resolve this issue.’ To my amazement—and to my disappointment both—Democrats universally said, ‘No. It was good to be able to help President Obama. Thank you very much for helping us, but we will not help President Trump. And we will not do this.’

My proposal was: not just to do it for two years, as it was done under President Obama. Let’s do it from here on out because this weaponizing of the cloture vote prevents any president in the future from ever getting all of their nominees, and I think when a person is elected, they should be able to hire their staff. That should be part of the deal when you’re actually electing someone.

When we were recording this podcast that the Senate actually went to the floor, we proposed the bill that I had two days ago, that failed to get any Democratic support, and so as Republicans step forward and said, ‘We’re going to use the same thing that was set up in the end of 2013 that Harry Reid used, a new precedent to be able to say, ‘You can change rules with 51 votes,’ that was a precedent that was set by Harry Reid in 2013, and say, ‘We’re going to use that,’ but it’s not going to just help President Trump, it’s from here on out. Every president in the future should be able to get their nominees heard. So as of yesterday, nominees for district court—those are the lower courts—and lower-level nominees and all of the Executive Branch will take two hours of floor debate time, If it’s requested. Most of them in the past, there was never a request for an additional two hours. Typically, that time was very, very short, if used at all. For instance, on a circuit court nominee that we had earlier this year that was very controversial, to be able to work through the process that a lot of Democrats didn’t like her particular conservative perspective, there was only 44 minutes of floor debate. But they demanded an additional 30 hours of total debate but only used 44 [minutes.]

There was another one of the circuit court nominees that just over an hour was actually used. It’s actually extremely rare for it to be more than 15 minutes of actually floor debate time because most of the debate is not on the floor, most of the debate is in the committee process, that’s where it’s actually resolved. And by the time it gets to the floor, we already know there’s a majority of support for this nominee, and it typically moves through at a pretty regular pace. 

So the basic proposal has now become the new rule of the Senate: two hours for district court, if there’s additional time needed, two hours of additional time that could be requested for lower level, but still the longer of 30 hours if you’re Supreme Court, circuit court, or cabinet-level individuals.   

Even last year—the Senate was in session more days last year than any other Congress in the last 50 years, but we still didn’t have enough time because there was a constant slowdown of the schedule. That has now finally been fixed. Now we should be able to work through the process to be able to queue up nominations and to be able to do it. And again it’s not just a partisan issue for President Trump; this is for every president in the future. Republicans joined Democrats with this basic belief: any president should be able to hire their staff. We did that and proved it in 2013 when Republicans helped President Obama get his staff. Now it’s time for us to be able to settle this once and for all and did for every president, this president included, in the days ahead.

There’s a lot that needs to be done to be able to serve the American people, but we’ve not been able to move through bills and the things that really need to get done because there’s this constant internal fight over nominations and the things that are not getting done.             

The Breakdown with James Lankford is now available on SoundCloud, iTunes, and Spotify

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