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McConnell set to scrap judge-pick veto clout

He says senators’ ability not by rule

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Photographs by AP/Timothy D. Easley

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. speaks during the Kentucky Farm Bureau Country Ham Breakfast, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Louisville, Ky.

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that he will end the long-held practice of giving senators a chance to block judicial nominees who would have jurisdiction over their states -- a move that comes as McConnell faces increasing pressure from conservative groups to make the Senate more responsive to President Donald Trump's wishes.

In an interview with the Weekly Standard, McConnell, R-Ky., stressed that the use of "blue slips" -- named after the piece of paper that senators from a potential federal judge's state must sign to indicate their approval -- is a custom, not a rule, and that the use of them will no longer be enforced.

His comments are an expansion of a Republican campaign to pull back on blue-slip authority. In an interview with The New York Times last month, McConnell said the Senate would no longer be observing the blue-slip tradition for appeals court judges -- arguing that it was not fair to allow just one senator to block progress on an appeals court judge with jurisdiction over several states if other senators from affected states were on board.

The announcement came in the midst of a few high-profile standoffs between Republicans and Democrats over circuit judges, such as Sen. Al Franken's, D-Minn., declaration that he would not return a blue slip for Minnesota Supreme Court Judge David Stras to join the bench of the 8th Circuit Court, and Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden's refusal to return blue slips for prosecutor Ryan Bounds, Trump's nominee to sit on the 9th Circuit.

McConnell's comments come as conservative groups press him to take more action on Trump's judicial nominees. According to a report in Politico, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network is planning to spend a quarter-million dollars on ads pushing McConnell to clear more of Trump's nominees.

The expansion means, however, that Democrats will be hard-pressed to prevent any of Trump's judicial nominees from being confirmed, so long as Republicans can agree on them.

Thanks to a rules change that the Senate adopted when Democrats were the majority in that chamber, it takes only 50 votes to confirm federal judges. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., noted that "the Senate has fewer and fewer mechanisms that create bipartisanship and bring people to an agreement."

"The blue slips are one of them," he continued. "It's just a shame that Sen. McConnell is willing to abandon it for circuit court judges."

Schumer also expressed hope that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, "who has always believed in the traditions of the Senate, will resist Sen. McConnell's request."

In a statement, Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the senator has a tradition of using blue slips and "expects senators and the president to continue engaging in consultation when selecting judicial nominees."

But the blue-slip practice is not guaranteed, he added, saying Grassley "will determine how to apply the blue-slip courtesy for federal judicial nominees, as has always been the practice," and would address "abuses" of the blue-slip process "on a case-by-case basis."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) discusses Republican budget proposals at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 5, 2017.

A Section on 10/12/2017

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