Mitch McConnell has no regrets when it comes to the Senate’s caustic nominations wars over the past decade — and he feels no responsibility for them, either.
The Senate majority leader notched a major political victory — for him and President Donald Trump — when Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court on Friday. His historic move a day earlier to invoke the “nuclear option” to gut the filibuster for all future Supreme Court nominees, the Senate majority leader told POLITICO in an interview, was merely finishing a fight that Democrats started more than a decade ago by blocking George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
And now McConnell expects senators to take their two-week spring recess and move past the entire episode.
“What I am hoping is that after the break, we’ll get back to more normal,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “I don’t think yesterday had as much drama attached to it as most people think.”
His counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), has expressed some remorse for Democrats’ decision in 2013 to unilaterally eliminate the filibuster for nearly all nominations. McConnell had no such compunction. He argued that Democrats had no rationale for invoking the nuclear option four years ago in response to alleged Republican obstructionism.
Asked whether he felt any responsibility using dilatory tactics during the Obama presidency, McConnell responded: “No.”
“At the time they pulled the trigger, we confirmed 215 judges and defeated two,” McConnell said, referring to the 2013 change. “I rest my case: 215 to two. So there was no provocation to do that. They just wanted to stack the D.C. Circuit.”
He also defended his decision to block Merrick Garland for almost a year, saying it not only helped the GOP retain the Senate majority but helped Trump win the presidency. Some other senators take a dimmer view, saying this week’s move could mean that future presidents will be able to install justices on the high court only when the president’s party controls the Senate.
McConnell said his track record of cutting deals undercuts the rap that he’s presided over growing partisanship and a decay of the institution’s character over the past decade.
“Have you forgotten the Biden-McConnell deals?” McConnell said, referring to his skill for striking major legislative agreements with former Vice President Joe Biden. “The two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts in 2010. The Budget Control Act of 2011. The fiscal cliff deal on Dec. 31 of 2013. We made deals all the time.”
The typically poker-faced majority leader was in a jovial mood on Friday, bearing a broad grin as he sat down with a pair of reporters, while insisting: “I smile all the time.”
“I’ve got to have this dour expression” publicly, he joked, “to keep you guys off balance.”
McConnell’s central role in the first major victory of the Trump presidency is unambiguous. In addition to his quick decision after Antonin Scalia’s death to leave the Supreme Court seat open until after the election, McConnell privately encouraged the Trump campaign that it work with the conservative Federalist Society to release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees during the election. That helped Trump win over traditional conservatives wary of the candidate, who was once a registered Democrat and proudly claimed he was “very pro-choice.”
McConnell declined to say whether he thinks Trump needs to stick to that list of 21 potential candidates for the next vacancy on the Supreme Court. McConnell would say only that Trump should select a “highly-qualified nominee,” even if that person will need the support of just 51 senators.
“I know he feels good about how this worked out,” McConnell said of Trump. “It’s been kind of a rough start to this administration. It’s nice to have a success. And I know he feels good about it. And the way to have a success is to do it again.”
McConnell added that the caliber of Gorsuch helped stiffen the spines of Senate Republicans unsure about supporting the nuclear option. The move lowered the threshold for advancing Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority, infuriating Democratic senators already enraged by McConnell’s treatment of Garland last year.
“Sen. McConnell may try to erase years of slowing down President Obama’s nominees and Merrick Garland from his memory,” Schumer spokesman Matt House said. “But he can’t erase the stain that his unprecedented blockade left on the Senate.”
But McConnell called his decision not to move on Garland, made within hours of Scalia’s passing, the “most consequential” of his political career. He said he was “very comfortable” with it, despite the controversy it sparked.
McConnell stressed that he does not support making changes to the 60-vote threshold needed to clear most Senate legislation. Nervous senators have warned that the legislative filibuster could be the next to go, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) released a letter Friday with more than 60 signatures from senators vowing to preserve it.
“I will say I think this has nothing to do with the fundamental character of the Senate,” McConnell said of this week’s rules change. “I don’t know whether you guys have written that or not. But it’s not true. The essence of the Senate is the legislative filibuster.”
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