McConnell breaks Senate record for longest serving leader

Mitch McConnell officially broke the record for longest serving Senate leader on Tuesday.

In his floor remarks to open the new Congress, McConnell paid tribute to the last Senate leader to hold the record: Democratic Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana, who served as Majority Leader for 16 years.

“This scholarly Montanan was not an exciting idealist who transformed our national discourse, nor a policy entrepreneur who brought to the leader’s role his own sweeping wish list of federal programs,” McConnell said. “Mansfield made a huge impact through a different road: by viewing the role of leader as serving others.”

McConnell’s standing as the longest serving Senate party leader stood in stark contrast to the situation of GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who on the same day failed to attain the necessary votes to become speaker on a first House ballot. McConnell, meanwhile, achieved his record after beating back his first leadership challenge in November. Ten senators instead voted for Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), following a disappointing midterm performance for the GOP.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell adviser, said Tuesday he’s not “surprised at all” about McConnell breaking Mansfield’s record.

“If you’ve read [McConnell's] book, ‘The Long Game,’ this is something he’s wanted to do his whole life,” Cornyn said.

McConnell also commemorated other Senate leaders, including former Senate Republican Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd and former Senate Democratic Leader Lyndon B. Johnson. Mansfield succeeded Johnson as Senate leader.

McConnell said under Mansfield's management of the Senate, “proceedings became more orderly and less theatrical.” And he highlighted Mansfield’s interest in Asia, describing him as a “trusted foreign policy hand.”

"Mansfield was a canny strategist who knew how to rally his conference. He knew when to go to battle, and when to coordinate with his counterpart Everett Dirksen," McConnell said. "In short, he knew how to work the Senate."

The 80-year-old McConnell, first elected Senate GOP leader in 2006, was majority leader from 2015 to the beginning of 2021. During that period, McConnell drew Democratic ire for blocking former President Barack Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland from Senate consideration, in addition to Obama's other judicial nominees. Under former President Donald Trump, Senate Republicans proceeded to confirm three Supreme Court justices, shifting the ideological balance of the court, along with 231 district, circuit court and U.S. Court of International Trade judges.

While McConnell worked closely with the Trump White House on judicial nominees and the 2017 GOP tax cuts, his relationship with the former president soured after the 2020 presidential election. After the Jan. 6 attack, McConnell described Trump as “practically and morally responsible,” but declined to convict him during his second impeachment trial. The Kentucky Republican has since avoided talking about the former president directly.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer congratulated McConnell on breaking the record, during his own floor speech.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, so I hope we can find some ways to come together and not succumb to gridlock,” Schumer said. “For the good of this chamber and for the good of our country.”

McConnell became the longest serving GOP leader in June 2018, beating out former Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.). He is also the longest serving senator from Kentucky, first elected in 1984.

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Senate GOP dealmakers depart just as Congress control splits

Rob Portman doesn’t want his fellow Republicans to take the wrong lesson from their lackluster showing in the midterms.

Some think “you have to be more partisan to win elections,” Portman said in an interview. “I think it’s just the opposite.”

The Ohio senator is one of six GOP negotiators known for working across the aisle who are leaving Congress. Portman himself was the lead Republican on the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and others worked on the recently passed year-end government spending package, legislation to protect same-sex marriages, a long-stalled deal on gun safety and a bill to boost semiconductor manufacturing.

In addition to Portman, the retiring GOP senators include Alabama's Richard Shelby, who took government funding across the finish line; Roy Blunt of Missouri and Richard Burr of North Carolina, who both backed several of the major bipartisan bills this Congress; Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who has long supported reforming background checks and was one of the original backers of the gun safety proposal; and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who just finished negotiating his final annual defense policy bill.

Their departures are coming at an inopportune time for Congress — with party control of the House and Senate split and both majorities razor-thin, legislating is expected to come to a near halt. But lawmakers will need bipartisan deal-makers to at least keep the government lights on and address inevitable crises. And the GOP is at a crossroads following its disappointing performance in the midterms, dealing with an already scandal-plagued presidential run from former President Donald Trump and House conservatives threatening to hijack the speaker’s race.

“I think right now that the Republican Party’s got to right itself,” Shelby said in a recent interview. “I think that by ’24, we’ll do that. There’s a lot of dissent.”

Yet even in a chamber that’s known for its egos, senators don’t think their departures mean it’s time to bury bipartisanship. Portman predicted that the retirements won’t be “quite the change” some are suggesting and said he believed that “others will step up” in the GOP to work across the aisle. Of the 10 senators who negotiated the infrastructure deal, he noted, he’s the only one retiring. Blunt echoed those sentiments.

“Everybody is more easily replaced than either they think they are or people who have reported on them for a long time think they are,” the Missouri Republican said. “So I suspect the gap will not be as big as it currently seems.”

The 118th Congress won’t get any easier as Washington prepares for divided government. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed at a recent news conference that the next two years will “be a lot more productive than people think,” a far smaller percentage of the House GOP backed the Senate’s bipartisan deals compared with the upper chamber’s Republicans. There was one notable exception in the recently cleared same-sex marriage bill, which 39 House GOP members voted to approve.

Schumer has yet to specify what bipartisan legislation he plans to pursue next term, but when asked about retiring GOP senators, he cited the latest spending package as a sign of optimism for next year. Other Democrats, however, suggested cross-aisle relationships might not be so easy to replicate.

“I worry about it,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “When you have a history of working across the aisle, when you lose them it’s tough.”

And it’s not just about losing a handful of Republicans who helped Democrats get to the requisite 60 votes in the Senate. Many of the bipartisan successes of this Congress, including the recently passed updates to the 1887 Electoral Count Act, were the product of “gangs” of Democratic and GOP senators, who forged deals that they then sold to their respective caucuses with the blessing of Senate leaders. While Portman, Blunt and others are leaving, most of the senators who worked in those groups will be back in the next Congress.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who led the Democratic side of talks on the infrastructure bill and was a lead negotiator for the gun safety and same-sex marriage bills, said in a December interview with POLITICO that she’s optimistic about the incoming class of senators. Sinema has already met with Sen.-elect Katie Britt (R-Ala.), who will replace Shelby, her former boss.

“I worry about it,” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said of departing GOP senators. “When you have a history of working across the aisle, when you lose them it’s tough.”

“Am I sad Rob Portman is retiring? Yeah, because he’s a very good friend … and I’m incredibly sad that Roy Blunt is retiring,” she said. “But I know that folks who are coming in their place are folks who are willing to work.”

Whether the first-term senators will actually resemble their predecessors remains to be seen. For example, Sen.-elect Ted Budd of North Carolina, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who voted against certifying the 2020 election, will replace Burr, who voted to convict Trump in the second impeachment trial. During his campaign, Budd vowed to “think independently.”

On most bipartisan votes this term, more GOP senators than the necessary 10 would join all Democrats in clearing legislation. Nineteen Republicans backed the infrastructure bill, 18 supported the December spending package, 15 voted for the gun safety bill and 17 supported the semiconductor manufacturing bill. Yet a smaller group offered its support early on to legislative frameworks, a critical step to demonstrate that bipartisan proposals like the gun safety package could get the votes to pass.

And there were still some bills in which every single vote counted, particularly in the longest-running 50-50 Senate in history. Portman, Burr and Blunt were among the 12 Republicans who voted for the same-sex marriage legislation that the Ohio senator also helped sponsor, giving it just a two-vote cushion to break the legislative filibuster. And in a possible foreshadowing of next year’s fight, three of the 11 senators who backed a temporary deal to allow Democrats to raise the debt limit in October 2021 are retiring.

“The members who are leaving are among the least angry. And many, in many cases, may be the most likely to reach out and figure out how to get something done,” Blunt observed.

However, the fact that the senators were leaving might be part of the reason they could successfully negotiate and support those deals. Portman said that not running for reelection made it easier to work on the infrastructure bill in Washington, without having to worry about fundraising or traveling home to campaign. Not to mention the typical constituent and party pressures that bear down on lawmakers with upcoming elections.

The next two years will, in part, be defined by the 2024 presidential election and whether the GOP decides to truly move on from Trump. Burr, Toomey and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who will leave the Senate in January to become president of the University of Florida, all voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial. Other senators have been more willing to criticize the former president than some of their House counterparts, but few in the GOP are taking concrete steps to actively prevent him from winning the nomination. Some privately hope his nascent campaign will implode on its own.

Portman reiterated his prediction that Trump wouldn’t follow through on a 2024 run and would end up serving as more of an outside influence on the direction of the GOP. And Shelby suggested a ticket with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin “would have a strong appeal to a lot of people, independents and a lot of frustrated Republicans.”

“Many Americans who … are supportive of [Trump] from a policy point of view are ready to see someone else run for president,” Portman said, adding that polling data suggests “a lot of Republican voters are ready to move on to a new candidate, whether it’s DeSantis or someone else.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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Murkowski bucks her party to back Biden’s pick for DOJ No. 3

Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted Wednesday to confirm Vanita Gupta to the No. 3 position at the Justice Department, blowing up her party’s effort to make Democrats solely own the confirmation.

Senate Republicans have spent weeks speaking out against Gupta, describing her as a “radical” who would defund the police. They’ve also criticized her past statements on decriminalizing drugs and heavily signaled that their entire 50-member conference would stay unified against her. Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in the Senate on Wednesday ahead of a preliminary vote on Gupta, indicating widespread expectations that the nomination would require the first tie-breaking vote of the Biden administration.

But Murkowski, who voted to convict Donald Trump in the former president's second impeachment trial, had other plans. During floor remarks ahead of a final vote, the senator said that after meeting with Gupta, she was impressed by “the passion that [the nominee] carries with her with the work that she performs” and said Gupta is “deeply committed to matters of justice.”

Among the issues Murkowski discussed with Gupta was domestic violence and sexual assault, particularly against Native women — a major priority for the Alaska Republican.

“I felt that I was speaking to a woman who had not only committed her professional life to try to get the base of these injustices, to try to not just direct a little bit of money, put a program in place, and walk away and call it a day,” Murkowski said, “But to try to truly make a difference.”

Gupta had unanimous support from Senate Democrats, who praised her credentials and were quick to note her endorsements from several law enforcement groups, including the Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed former President Donald Trump twice. Gupta also has backing from Grover Norquist and Bill Kristol.

While Gupta’s nomination was never in jeopardy, Murkowski’s vote to confirm her was a surprise. Earlier in the day, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had warned that Gupta could be the first Biden nominee whose confirmation could fall along party lines. In the end, she was confirmed 51-49.

Gupta’s bipartisan confirmation came after Senate Republicans, including Murkowski, unanimously voted last week against discharging Gupta from the Judiciary Committee, which deadlocked 11-11.

During her floor remarks, Murkowski said that when meeting with Gupta, the nominee spoke about the pressures associated with her confirmation.

“Is this worth it?” Murkowski asked her GOP colleagues. “Because this has been, clearly, very hard on her as a nominee. And she paused and reflected a moment and just spoke to how she feels called to serve in a very personal way that I thought was impactful.”

Gupta was previously president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She also was head of the civil rights division under former President Barack Obama. She will be the first woman of color to serve as associate attorney general.

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Senate revs its confirmation engine to fill Biden’s Cabinet

After slow early progress on approving President Joe Biden's Cabinet nominees, the Senate is finally on track to catch up to its pace of confirmations at the beginning of the Trump and Obama administrations.

With Donald Trump's impeachment trial over and Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed, the Senate is spending this week on a confirmation blitz. The chamber is set to approve Biden’s picks to lead the Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Remember, we didn’t have a majority until three weeks later" than usual thanks to the Georgia Senate runoffs, noted Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democratic leader. "There wasn't much of a transition. So I think we're doing pretty good."

The Senate voted Tuesday evening to advance the nominations of Judge Merrick Garland for attorney general and Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Fudge was confirmed Wednesday on a 66-34 vote, with Garland's final approval to follow. North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan is expected to win confirmation as EPA administrator this week, while Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) appears on track for a final vote to become Interior secretary next week.

Thirteen members of Biden’s Cabinet have been confirmed so far this year, but that number is expected to increase to 16 by the end of the week. That brings this Congress close to the 18 Cabinet nominees confirmed under former President Trump during the same time period and equal to the 16 under former President Barack Obama in the equivalent timeframe. (The number of total Cabinet positions varies based on administration.)

Rep. Marcia Fudge criticized the USDA's move to appeal the ruling.

But Biden came to the White House under different circumstances. Senate Democrats didn’t officially take the majority until Jan. 20, after winning Georgia's two run-off races. And only after Democrats effectively won the Senate on Jan. 6 did Biden announce he would nominate Garland for attorney general.

It also took weeks for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to hammer out an agreement for governing the evenly split Senate, leaving Democrats without full control of the chamber's committees until early February. On top of that, Trump's impeachment trial in mid-February halted floor activity for about a week.

Considering those obstacles, Senate Democrats were confident in their progress toward giving Biden a Cabinet.

The catch-up effect on confirmations is due to "McConnell’s stalling the rules," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, but also a "cascading effect of delay" because of Democrats winning the majority in January as opposed to November.

“It’s proceeding,” agreed Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). “Obviously there was some time lost in the impeachment week."

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency nominee Michael Regan, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

So far, Biden’s cabinet picks have all been confirmed with bipartisan backing and that trend is expected to continue this week. Multiple Republicans voted Monday evening to move forward on Garland, including McConnell, who blocked the judge's nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016. Fudge drew 19 Republican votes for advancing her nod. Regan, meanwhile, was voted out of the Environment and Public Works Committee with bipartisan support.

McConnell touted Republican support for Biden’s “mainstream nominees” on Monday and suggested GOP senators were more cooperative with Biden than Democrats were with Trump. The Kentucky Republican has supported every Biden nominee, except Alejandro Mayorkas for Department of Homeland Security, though he announced Wednesday that he plans to vote against Haaland and Regan.

“Frankly, the president and his team must be thrilled that Senate Republicans are proving to be more fair and more principled on personnel matters than the Democratic minority’s behavior just four years ago," McConnell said.

Democrats counter that Biden had more qualified nominees than Trump did, not to mention that Republican senators slapped holds on several Biden nominees — including Garland.

But not every Cabinet confirmation has gone smoothly. Biden’s pick to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, last week withdrew from consideration after facing opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and moderate Republicans, highlighting Democrats’ razor-thin majority and the ability of a single senator to torpedo a nominee.

Rep. Debra Haaland, President Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of the Interior, testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resource.

Democrats can confirm Biden’s nominees without Republican support, but they need full caucus unity in order for Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote.

It’s not unusual for at least one Cabinet nominee to go down during a new president’s term. Andy Puzder, Trump’s nominee for Labor secretary, withdrew after video surfaced of his wife alleging domestic abuse and after he admitted he did not pay taxes on the services of an undocumented immigrant. Obama saw three of his picks withdraw: Tom Daschle for secretary of Health and Human Services, and both Bill Richardson and Judd Gregg for Commerce secretary.

While Haaland sparked initial concern about centrist Democratic buy-in given her progressive background, she appears headed toward a smooth confirmation after Manchin, along with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), announced their support.

Manchin has yet to say whether he will support Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services. During his confirmation hearings, Becerra faced questions from Republicans about his experience in public health, his views on abortion and lawsuits he filed as attorney general of California. He was the first Biden nominee to be reported out of committee along party lines.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed confidence that Becerra would be confirmed Monday with the full support of the Democratic caucus.

Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.

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Senate Judiciary Committee schedules Merrick Garland confirmation hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a confirmation hearing in two weeks for President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Justice Department, Merrick Garland.

The hearing, scheduled for Feb. 22 and 23, sets Garland up for a March 1 vote out of committee and comes after Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) reached an agreement for the schedule.

“I’m pleased that we can announce that the Committee will be moving forward on a bipartisan basis,” Durbin said in a statement. “Judge Garland will serve the Justice Department and our country with honor and integrity. He is a consensus pick who should be confirmed swiftly on his merits.”

The date for Garland’s confirmation hearing had been in limbo, in part due to the weeks of negotiation between Senate leaders over an organizing resolution for governing the 50-50 chamber. Before the organizing resolution was adopted, Senate Republicans technically still held committee gavels.

Durbin had requested that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who until last week was still chair, hold Garland’s hearing on Feb. 8. But Graham declined to do so, arguing that it violated the committee's standard of only holding a confirmation hearing 28 days after receiving paperwork. He added that there would be insufficient time to consider Garland before the Senate impeachment trial.

Grassley said in a statement Tuesday evening that “given the significance of this role, he agreed to make an exception for the 28-day time frame and will “accelerate the post-committee hearing markup.”

“Given these accommodations, I expect a thorough review of Judge Garland’s qualifications as well as swift and transparent responses going forward,” he said.

Under the committee schedule, Garland will appear before the committee on the first day of his confirmation hearing. The second day will consist of testimony from outside witnesses. Senators will then submit questions for the record to Garland on Feb. 24. Garland will have until Feb. 28 to respond.

Biden announced he planned to nominate Garland to be attorney general Jan. 7. Garland is the former chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and was President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court in March 2016. His nomination, however, was blocked by the GOP-controlled Senate.

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Democrats’ big shift in Trump’s second impeachment

Democrats made a push for witnesses central to President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. But not this time.

Senate Democrats are making it clear they’re taking a different approach than they did for Trump’s infamous Ukraine call. Now, they say their experience as witnesses to the Jan. 6 insurrection is enough.

“This is based on a public crime,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “His intent was unhidden and so I think there’s a danger as there always is for a trial lawyer and prosecutor to over-try, to add more witnesses that prove the obvious.”

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) compared the situations this way: “Imagine if the Ukraine call were streamed on the Internet." And given how dug in most members of both parties are, he observed: "It’s not clear to me that there is any evidence that will change anyone’s mind.”

Rioters try to break through a police barrier Jan. 6 at the Capitol in Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are still haggling over how to organize the trial, so it's not even certain whether the Senate will vote on the witness question at all, or if someone will force one at the start of the trial.

But for the moment, the trial is not expected to last more than a week, though that could change if witnesses are brought in. Some Senate Democrats have called for a prompt trial, citing other priorities like coronavirus relief and the extreme unlikelihood that 17 Republicans will join them in convicting Trump. Meanwhile, most Republicans are coalescing around the argument that impeaching a former president is unconstitutional.

“Both sides would kind of like to wrap it up fairly quickly,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “If they want to call witnesses, that prolongs it for sure. And I think you’re talking about pushing into the next week, the week after that perhaps, because then both sides will have that option available to them.”

Senate Democrats, however, will largely defer to the House impeachment managers on the question of witnesses. The managers have yet to publicly say whether they want to bring in outside witnesses to make their case against Trump, or whether they will simply rely on video and public comments from the former president as evidence. Lead impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) called on Trump Thursday to testify but the ex-president rejected the request.

Whether the House impeachment managers push the Senate to hold a vote to subpoena Trump remains to be seen. But some Senate Democrats are already suggesting they don’t have much interest in hearing from him.

“I don’t know what it would add,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine.), who caucuses with Democrats.

“A simply terrible idea,” added Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “He will perjure himself, so he’s the one at risk. But I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed my first full Trump free week of the last five years.”

The witness debate last year consumed Trump’s first impeachment trial, which lasted nearly three weeks. Senate Republicans chose to punt the question of whether to bring in witnesses to the end of the trial. In the end, only two Republicans — Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine — joined Democrats in voting to allow officials like John Bolton to testify, leaving Democrats short of the 51 votes needed.

Democratic senators argued that outside witnesses were needed to understand the extent to which Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his Democratic rivals, including Joe Biden, in exchange for much-needed aid. This time, they recount how their own lives were put at risk by rioters and watched Trump’s response in real time.

“This is a unique situation in that we are all witnesses as well as victims,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who added she wants “to listen to how the House wants to present their case.”

The process surrounding the second impeachment trial is also different. The House spent two months between the beginning of its inquiry and the final impeachment vote investigating Trump’s call and his administration’s withholding of aid to Ukraine, holding several hearings and requesting documents from the White House — requests that the Trump administration ignored. For the Jan. 6 insurrection, the House voted to impeach Trump a week later and never conducted a formal inquiry.

Perhaps the most glaring difference is that Trump is no longer in office. The Senate has never held an impeachment trial for a former president — though many legal scholars, including some from the conservative Federalist Society, argue that the chamber can still convict Trump. Democrats say that the Senate needs to hold Trump accountable and bar him from running for public office again. Even if the trial doesn't result in conviction, Democrats highlight that it will provide the public with a record of Jan. 6.

While hardly anyone is expecting the trial to drag on, Democrats aren’t closing the door on witnesses. In interviews this week, some senators said that they’d support bringing individuals in to testify if they could provide new information. However, they added that it's not up to them to give advice to the House impeachment managers.

“I am not going to object if they want to bring in witnesses,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I think that it isn’t my call though, it’s their call.”

Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, is not expected to push for witnesses. But senators say they’d be open to their request.

“If he and his team think they need it, it’s not a fair trial if you say ‘no you can’t have it,’" said Sen Tim Kaine. (D-Va.). “I thought last year’s trial was a joke because they wouldn’t allow it and they should have but just because the Republicans turned it into a sham a year ago, I’m not going to turn it into a sham now.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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Durbin urges Graham to schedule confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland as AG

Sen. Dick Durbin, incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called on Sen. Lindsey Graham on Monday to schedule a confirmation hearing next week for Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Justice Department.

The Illinois Democrat’s request comes as the evenly split Senate has yet to pass an organizing resolution, which will determine the committees for the 117th Congress. Until the organizing resolution is approved, Republicans like Graham, of South Carolina, still hold committee gavels from the previous Congress.

In a letter to Graham, Durbin urged the outgoing Judiciary chair to hold Garland’s confirmation hearing next Monday, before the Senate begins its impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump. He also argued that Garland’s confirmation was particularly urgent in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

“To delay Judge Garland’s hearing jeopardizes our national security,” Durbin wrote. “The Attorney General oversees a multitude of Justice Department components and agencies that are vital to protecting the homeland from threats both foreign and domestic.”

Durbin said that while his committee staff has been working with Republican counterparts to schedule Garland’s hearing, they’ve now encountered “obstacles that needlessly delay” his confirmation.

Durbin added that he was “prepared to take other steps to expedite the Senate’s consideration of Judge Garland’s nomination should his hearing not go forward on February 8” in the absence of GOP cooperation.

Biden told committee staff on Jan. 6 that he planned to nominate Garland for attorney general. Garland is the former chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. He was also President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court in 2016, but his nomination was blocked by the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee received Garland’s paperwork last week. Typically, the committee has 28 days between receiving a nominee’s paperwork and the confirmation hearing. But Durbin told reporters recently that he was trying to reach an agreement with Republicans to shorten the amount of time.

In his letter on Monday, Durbin argued that a Feb. 8 hearing “affords ample time to review Judge Garland’s record,” and added that it would take place 13 days after the Committee received paperwork, “the same amount of time between the receipt of then-Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s [committee questionnaire] and her Supreme Court nomination hearing.”

Confirmation hearings for attorneys general have recently lasted two days, with the nominee testifying the first day and outside experts testifying the second.

Once the Senate approves the organizing resolution, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) will become the top Republican on the committee.

Spokespeople for Graham and Grassley did not immediately provide comment.

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‘Done in a week’: Democrats look to move past Trump trial

Even before Donald Trump’s impeachment trial begins, some Senate Democrats are getting ready to speed to the end.

After only five Republican senators joined Democrats in a vote Tuesday essentially declaring that Trump’s trial was constitutional, some in the new majority are signaling they’d like to quickly focus their attention elsewhere. If it wasn’t obvious before, they say, it’s now clear the GOP isn’t going to convict Trump.

“To do a trial knowing you'll get 55 votes at the max seems to me to be not the right prioritization of our time,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously we do a trial, maybe we can do it fast, but my top priority is Covid relief and getting the Biden Cabinet approved.”

Under Senate rules, the chamber is obligated to hold a trial now that an article of impeachment has been delivered. But lawmakers can decide how long the trial itself will last or whether to hear from any witnesses. Several Democrats emphasized in interviews Wednesday that they view Trump’s second impeachment trial as far different from his first, given that senators themselves witnessed the insurrection.

“This is a pretty straightforward trial,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I never thought it needed to be as long as the Ukraine trial which was a very complicated charge with a lot of witnesses and important testimony. I would hope we could get this done in a week.”

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a member of Democratic leadership, agreed: “It is really a judgment call about whether or not people think that his inciting an insurrection and essentially an attack on our democracy warrants conviction.”

The trial comes as the new Democratic majority is eager to confirm President Joe Biden’s nominees and advance his agenda, including another coronavirus relief package. But rushing through the proceedings could also undercut the only chance to hold Trump accountable for inciting the deadly riot at the Capitol and prevent him from running for office again.

Some Democrats are in no mood to discuss any timeline for the trial. Asked whether Tuesday’s procedural vote forced by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) informed his thinking on how much time Democrats should spend on the trial, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) responded that senators need to take a step back.

“Our job isn’t just to answer the minutiae of today’s Twitter-fueled news cycle but to think about our republic and its health and its viability,” said Coons, a close Biden ally. “We just had one of the most terrifying incidents in American history that put in question the viability of our democracy. How much time do you think we should spend on that?”

Coons added: “I’m struck at how few of my colleagues seem concerned about the quality of their answers.”

The parameters for the forthcoming impeachment trial have yet to be set. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reached an agreement last week that the trial would begin the week of February 8 and established a schedule for House impeachment managers and Trump’s defense to file their trial briefs. But Schumer and McConnell still need to work out the organizing resolution to govern the trial itself. Earlier this week, Schumer told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that the trial will be “fair” but also done “relatively quickly.”

Democrats are privately predicting the trial could start Tuesday February 9 and wrap up by the weekend. But the length of the trial could also depend on whether the House impeachment managers decide to bring in additional witnesses.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the new Budget Committee chairman who would help steer any relief package under reconciliation procedures, also signaled his desire to move quickly on the trial. “I would hope that we deal with that as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that he wants to see "the needs of working families" addressed.

While Senate Democrats are broadly expected to vote to convict Trump, they may only win over the five mostly moderate or retiring GOP senators who already voted with them: Sens. Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Pat Toomey and Ben Sasse. That’s far short of the 17 needed to convict Trump on a two-thirds majority.

Even after departing the White House largely disgraced in the eyes of official Washington, Trump has maintained his grip on the GOP. Many Senate Republicans are coalescing around the argument that it’s unconstitutional to convict a former president, though that claim is disputed by other legal scholars, including members of the conservative Federalist Society. Republicans have been eager to focus on procedural arguments against impeachment and not on Trump's behavior.

Some Republicans suggested that their vote Tuesday was not necessarily an indication of their final vote on whether to convict the former president. McConnell is among the Senate Republicans who say they remain undecided. The Kentucky Republican told reporters Wednesday that he’ll listen to both sides of the argument.

“I hope enough Republicans join us to impeach this president,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “If they don't, perhaps we'll consider some alternatives.”

Among the alternatives under discussion is a possible censure resolution, though it's not yet clear whether it could gain momentum.

Collins told reporters Wednesday that she and Kaine are working on a proposal that she said would be “in lieu of a trial.”

“The outcome of the trial is already obvious,” Collins said. “I believe yesterday's vote shows clearly that there is no possibility of conviction... the question is, is there another way to express condemnation of the president's activities with regard to the riot and the pressure that he put on state officials?”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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Delay in power-sharing pact leaves Senate in limbo

Democrats are in control of the Senate. But Sen. Ron Johnson is still leading the Homeland Security Committee, even though he's term-limited and in the minority.

It's the latest complication of the 50-50 Senate split.

“I’m still chairman,” the Wisconsin Republican said this week. “They haven’t hung my picture in the cloakroom yet so that’s a sign I guess.”

As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell negotiate a power sharing agreement for a 50-50 Senate, committee assignments are still up in the air. That means that Republicans like Johnson are, for now, holding hearings and markups for President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees, even though Democrats are in charge of the Senate floor.

Johnson, who will eventually hand over the top GOP slot to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said that his committee will hold a meeting next week on Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. Mayorkas is facing resistance from Republicans and could be stuck in committee if he doesn’t receive enough GOP support.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson speaks during a hearing.

In interviews this week, several senators laughed when asked who held the committee gavel.

"That’s a good question,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I assume that Leahy is, [chair]," he said, referencing Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is set to take the helm of the Judiciary Committee, said that right now “it could be one of three people,” who is in charge. It’s either him, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) who previously chaired the committee or Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who is slated to return as the top Republican in the new Congress.

A spokesperson for Grassley said that the Iowa Republican is still the chair of the Finance Committee.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services panel, is still calling Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) the chair of the committee even though Reed will eventually take that position. And Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referred questions about the status of his chairmanship to leadership.

Risch, however, added that the negotiations over the power sharing agreement, known as an organizing resolution, are “not affecting anything” on his committee and that he’s working with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat, to confirm Biden’s secretary of State nominee, Antony Blinken.

“It’s kind of goofy at the moment,” acknowledged Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

Negotiations between Schumer and McConnell over the organizing resolution are already hitting a snag. McConnell is calling for the resolution to include protections for the legislative filibuster, which Democrats are rejecting. And the talks are occurring as the Senate is preparing to hold a second impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump.

During floor remarks Friday, Schumer said that McConnell was making an “extraneous demand that would place additional constraints on the majority" and argued that the Senate should instead use the same power-sharing agreement as the last 50-50 Senate in 2001. McConnell countered that in 2001 “there wasn’t a need to reaffirm the basic standing rules that govern legislation in the Senate” because it was “safely assumed that no majority would break this rule for short-term gain.”

The 2001 agreement between then-Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle came at a time when the Senate was far less polarized. Even that took weeks to negotiate after the November election. But it was finalized before then President-elect George W. Bush took office and there was also no switch in party control.

“This could go on for a while but it’s got to get resolved or it’s going to start short-circuiting a lot of what happens here including their agenda,” Thune said.

The delay in the organizing resolution could impact Biden’s more controversial Cabinet picks. Without an organizing resolution, Republicans still outnumber Democrats on key committees and could theoretically block nominees from moving forward.

In addition, the longer the delay, the less likely the Senate will act soon on a coronavirus relief package, a top priority for Biden and Democrats. Biden’s initial proposal is already facing resistance from Republicans and Democrats aren’t likely to hold hearings on it until the committee ratios are settled.

The impasse over the resolution also means that the 10 new senators will need to wait for their committee assignments.

“For new members, they are eager to report back to their constituents what their committees are and they can’t do that,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “That’s obviously very frustrating.”

The new members insist that they’re keeping busy crafting legislation and say they are confident they’ll see their assignments soon.

“It does seem it will be 50-50 on committees and then we’ll get the committee assignments,” said freshman Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). “Unlike a lot of the folks in my class, I’ve been here for a little longer, six weeks. But that’s OK, I’m a patient person.”

Patience, however, could wear thin if the talks go for much longer. After six years in the minority and winning control of Washington, D.C., for the first time in a decade, Democrats are eager to get going on their agenda.

“Things are on hold,” Durbin said. “I’ve got a lot of things I want to do ... I want to get started on immigration. Everybody’s talking about immigration and I’m thinking this is our committee. We ought to be moving on it.”

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Democrats officially control the Senate after final members are sworn in

Democrats are now officially in charge of the Senate, capping the best day for the party in 12 years.

Chuck Schumer became majority leader late Wednesday afternoon, following the swearing in of Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The Senate "will turn to Democratic control under the first New York-born majority leader in American history, a kid from Brooklyn, the son of an exterminator and a housewife, descendents of victims of the Holocaust," Schumer said in his maiden speech as majority leader. "That I should be leader of this new Senate majority is an awesome responsibility."

Schumer, who was minority leader for four years, will be also be the first Jewish majority leader. And Ossoff and Warnock are the first Jewish and Black senators, respectively, to represent Georgia, which hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years. Meanwhile, Padilla, who will replace Harris in the Senate, is the first Latino to represent California in the upper chamber.

Ossoff was accompanied by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Padilla by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Warnock by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

Wednesday marked the first time in six years that Democrats have held the Senate majority and cemented full Democratic control of Washington for the first time in a decade.

While a Democratic Senate largely guarantees President Joe Biden will see his Cabinet nominees confirmed, the chamber’s 50-50 split, with Harris as the tie-breaker, leaves Democrats little room for internal dissent. The slim majority also reduces the odds that Democrats will scrap the legislative filibuster, meaning that at least 10 Republicans will need to work with Democrats on most legislation. Democrats, however, can use budget reconciliation procedures to pass some of their legislative priorities.

With an impeachment trial looming over the Senate, Democrats are vowing to both hold former President Donald Trump accountable for the Jan. 6 insurrection and move forward with another coronavirus relief package as well as Biden’s nominees. But that will require cooperation from Republicans, many of whom are resistant to impeachment as well as Biden’s agenda.

The Senate’s even split also means that Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will need to finalize a power-sharing agreement. McConnell is insisting that the agreement include a commitment to protect the legislative filibuster, which Democrats are expected to reject.

The power sharing agreement is otherwise likely to resemble the 2001 framework from former Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Dashchle, which split committee memberships and established that the party in control of the White House determined the Senate floor schedule. The leaders also have yet to finalize the parameters of the forthcoming impeachment trial, which can’t start until Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends the Senate the impeachment article charging Trump with inciting the Jan. 6 siege.

In addition to coronavirus relief, Schumer outlined a series of other priorities for Democrats in a letter to colleagues last week, including legislation related to immigration reform, climate change, health care, criminal justice reform and the tax code.

In his speech, Schumer vowed that the Senate "will do business differently" under him.

"This Senate will legislate," Schumer said. "It will be active, responsive, energetic and bold. And to my Republican colleagues, when and where we can, the Democratic majority will strive to make this important work bipartisan. The Senate works best when we work together."

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