WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's top Republican, facing increasing pressure from conservative groups, is seeking to upend a longstanding Senate tradition in order to speed the confirmation pace on a backlog of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees.
Conservative activists such as the Judicial Crisis Network have been increasingly frustrated with the slow pace on judicial nominees. The influential group had threatened to run ads against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell starting this week but backed off after winning assurances from the Kentucky Republican that the pace will quicken.
McConnell has also announced in media interviews that the Senate should no longer abide by a longstanding tradition that home-state senators must sign off on a judge before a Senate vote. In a Wednesday article in the conservative Weekly Standard, McConnell promised that "regardless of what tactics are used by Democrats, the judges are going to be confirmed."
Democrats have been slow-walking many of Trump's nominees but say McConnell is going too far by threatening to upend decades of precedent in the tradition-bound chamber, in which senators return a so-called blue slip to sign off on a home state judicial nominee. Without the blue slip, nominees are not given a vote in the Judiciary Committee. The tradition was followed during Democratic control of the Senate in former President Barack Obama's tenure.
But McConnell, in a quote from the Weekly Standard interview provided by spokesman Don Stewart, said he wants to change that tradition: "My view is that in this majority the blue slip for circuit judges are simply a notification of how you're going to vote, not a blackball."
But Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has made it clear he's abiding by the arcane tradition.
"Chairman Grassley has told me he will respect the blue slip tradition, just as I did," said former Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "I trust him to keep his word."
McConnell has come under assault from conservatives over his leadership of the Senate, which has failed to repeal the so-called Obamacare health law and has fallen into a comfortable work routine that most of the time permits senators to arrive in Washington on Monday afternoon and hop on planes home by mid-afternoon on Thursday.
Trump himself has been critical of McConnell and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon is vowing to help recruit primary candidates to challenge incumbent GOP senators. On Wednesday, a group of tea party conservatives sent a withering letter to McConnell blasting his leadership.
"You promised to repeal Obamacare, 'root and branch.' You've done nothing," said the letter, signed by conservative stalwarts such as Richard Viguerie and Brent Bozell. "You don't even show up for work."
McConnell has signaled that the Senate will devote more floor time to processing judges as the battle over the blue slip issue percolates.
"The Senate has fewer and fewer mechanisms that create bipartisanship and bring people to an agreement. The blue slips are one of them," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "It's just a shame that Senator McConnell is willing to abandon it."