Two months before Joe Biden assumes the presidency, Senate Republicans are racing to install a series of conservative nominees that will outlast Donald Trump.
While Trump still refuses to concede the election, the Senate GOP is moving quickly to ensure that the president’s stamp sticks to the Federal Elections Commission, Federal Reserve Board, the federal judiciary and beyond.
The effort played out in dramatic fashion this week, as Senate Republicans tried to muscle Judy Shelton onto the Fed by the narrowest of margins but fell short amid senators’ absences from the coronavirus. They’re also plotting a confirmation vote for Christopher Waller, Trump’s less controversial Fed pick.
The last-minute push to confirm Shelton, Waller and others is a key part of the Senate GOP’s bid to wield power in the dwindling days of a Republican presidency — even if most in the party still won’t acknowledge Biden’s victory.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s work on pushing lifetime judicial appointments is well known. But Shelton’s term would extend to 2024, Waller’s would last until 2030, and the FEC commissioners would stay on past Biden’s inauguration, as would potential additions to the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
“Certainly on the judiciary it’s a continuation of the same sort of priority. But there are other appointments to vacancies that are for terms that would be there not just until the next president is inaugurated, but for several years,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “There is a desire to continue our work and to have as big an impact as we can.”
Democrats view the GOP strategy as cynical and undemocratic. But as long as Republicans have the majority — and can keep their members in the Capitol — there’s nothing Democrats can do to stop them.
“It is a mockery of the norms and the democratic process. And certainly defies the will of the American people who just voted out of office the president who is selecting these nominees,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “It will leave in place some totally unqualified nominees with views antithetical to the will of the American people.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said there’s nothing nefarious about his party’s plans. And when it comes to the courts, he echoed McConnell: “no vacancy left unfilled.”
“Obviously whatever’s left [of] unfinished business we want to get it done before the end of the year and the start of the new Congress,” Thune said. “It’s really a culmination of a lot of work that we’ve been doing for a long time.”
With coronavirus relief negotiations at an impasse, the to-do list for the lame duck session will in all likelihood be limited to funding the government, passing an annual defense bill and confirming nominees.
Senate Republicans also have the majority on their mind, with twin run-off races in Georgia that will determine control of the chamber. While Republicans are favored, Democrats could flip the Senate if they win both seats. That’s got the GOP eager to do what they can between now and January while their majority is assured.
The Senate held hearings Wednesday for three nominees to the Federal Election Commission, a panel that has struggled to hold a quorum during Trump’s presidency. If Senate Rules Chair Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) can get all three nominees through the committee and ready for the floor in December, the nation’s chief campaign finance watchdog will have a full slate of commissioners for the first time in years.
By law, the six-member commission cannot have more than three members from the same party serving, so the GOP would not have an advantage, but it would give Trump an opportunity to leave his mark.
When asked about the timing of hearings for the FEC nominees, Blunt responded that filling lifetime vacancies was the first priority but “there just aren’t many of them left.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is moving quickly to advance a new tranche of judicial nominees, including Thomas Kirsch to take a seat on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to replace Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Democrats are protesting the committee moving forward on new judicial nominees after Trump’s defeat, but Graham dismissed their concerns in an interview.
This week alone, the Senate confirmed four district court judges.
“The forces behind this operation want to see these goals accomplished,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “They spent a lot of good money for the majority that’s doing it and they want to use every last day of it.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Energy Committee advanced two nominees this week for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees the nation’s electricity markets. If confirmed, the picks would lock in three Republican appointees on the five-member commission through mid-2021.
Senate Republicans also face pressure to jam through Trump’s nominee to the FCC. Doing so would delay Biden’s ability to form a Democratic majority at the five-member regulatory body next year and likely push off new regulations such as a revival of the Obama-era net neutrality rules. Trump himself has needled Senate Republicans to pick up the pace on the appointment, a Commerce Department staffer named Nathan Simington who some conservatives see as critical to Trump’s attempted crackdown on social media giants.
“When you have openings in agencies that are usually Republican you probably want to fill it while he’s president. But this is not new ground we’re plowing,” Graham said of the party’s efforts.
Even though Trump has largely remained out of sight since losing the Nov. 3 election and continues to block the transition of power, the White House is still sending nominations over to the Senate.
On Tuesday, Trump announced his intent to nominate Brian Brooks to a five-year term as Comptroller of the Currency. Brooks currently holds the role in an acting capacity and Senate Banking Committee Chair Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) told reporters he’d consider the nomination given that “Trump is president until this election is resolved, and maybe beyond.”
While Republicans may view the lame duck session as a final opportunity to implement their conservative agenda before Biden is inaugurated, Democrats see a Trump-led effort to impede the president-elect wherever possible.
“Whether it’s new sanctions against Iran or a pull-out from Afghanistan or FEC and Fed nominees, Trump’s goal right now is to sort of sabotage and make complicated a Biden administration to the maximum extent possible,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), adding that Senate Republicans “are along for the ride on all of it.”
John Hendel, Anthony Adragna, Victoria Guida and Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.
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