The Senate is bracing for an end-of-the-year brawl over President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE's judicial nominations.
Republicans view filling the lifetime court seats as their top priority and are expected to confirm as many nominees as possible before the Senate adjourns for the year, infuriating Democrats and their allies who are powerless to stop Trump's picks.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunday shows preview: New members preview agendas after Democratic House takeover Trump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural MORE (R-Ky.) Is already teeing up votes for two nominations – Jonathan Kobes to be an 8th Circuit Court judge and Thomas Farr to be a district court judge – for when senators return from their Thanksgiving recess.
And Republicans expect McConnell to barrel through more nominations before Dec. 14, the chamber's target date to wrap up their work for the year.
"That's Sen. McConnell's No. 1 priority is to continue to move judges, "said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump's backing may not be enough on criminal justice reform Congress should ban life without parole sentences for children Senate GOP discussing Mueller vote MORE (R-Texas), the second-ranking Republican.
There are 35 judicial nominees available for votes on the Senate calendar, leaving more nominations than days left in the Senate's work schedule to confirm the picks.
McConnell has pledged that he will move each of Trump's nominees who are out of committee by the end of the year. If he's going to make good on that plan, he'll either need a final nominations package or keep the Senate in session through the holidays.
Sen. Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonTrump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship McConnell: Criminal justice bill unlikely this year Cotton opposes Trump-backed criminal justice bill MORE (R-Ark.) Said McConnell has pledged he will not leave any court nominees behind, adding that it was up to Democrats to determine when they wanted to leave town.
"It's really up to them whether they want to confirm those on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, or whether they want to confirm them earlier in December by yielding back the time," Cotton told radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Republicans have been confirming Trump's judicial nominees at a rapid clip, setting a record for the number of appeals judges confirmed during the first two years of an administration.
McConnell recently touted the record number of circuit judges at the Federalist Society's Antonin Scalia Memorial Dinner, adding that "there will be more before the end of this current Congress."
Though Republicans have the first unified GOP government in a decade, McConnell says he views judicial nominations as the party's best chance of having a long-term impact on the direction of the country.
Underscoring the importance on the nominations, the issue came up during a recent White House meeting between Trump, McConnell, Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyTrump on border wall funding: 'This would be a very good time to do a shutdown' Kellyanne Conway: Trump could shut down government for wall funding On The Money: Senior GOP senator warns Trump against shutdown | Treasury sanctions 17 Saudis over Khashoggi killing | HQ2 deal brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Senate confirms Bowman to Fed board MORE (R-Ala.) And Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneBipartisan Senate bill would penalize illegal robocalls Hillicon Valley: Russian-linked hackers may have impersonated US officials | Trump signs DHS cyber bill | Prosecutors inadvertently reveal charges against Assange Accenture workers protest border enforcement work | App mines crypto for bail bonds Senators push bipartisan bill to crack down on robocalls MORE (R-S.D.) To discuss the end-of-the-year agenda.
"McConnell discussed that that was one of his priorities and how important it was," Shelby said after the meeting.
The GOP's hardball tactics have infuriated Democrats and their allies, who can not stop Trump's picks without help from Republicans.
People for the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker called Kobes and Farr the latest examples of Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTrump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship Overnight Health Care – Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines – GOP lawmaker pushes back on Trump drug pricing plan | Pfizer to raise prices on 41 drugs next year | Grassley opts for Finance gavel McConnell: Criminal justice bill unlikely this year MORE (R-Iowa) and McConnell's "reckless and irresponsible approach to rubber stamping Trump's dangerous judicial nominations," adding that the two senators "have debased the Senate in pursuit of their ultra-party agenda."
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man Election Countdown: Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor's race | Latest on Florida recount | Booker, Harris head to campaign in Mississippi Senate runoff Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority Entrepreneur touts big solutions, endorsements in discussing presidential bid MORE (D-Mass.) Seized on McConnell's decision to tee up Farr's nomination, saying he was making a "last-ditch effort" and warning that Farr, if confirmed, will "keep working to disenfranchise African Americans and communities of color."
Tensions have been running high for months over judicial nominations, with Republicans accusing Democrats of "obstruction" and Democrats arguing McConnell and Grassley are destroying Senate norms in order to fill the courts with conservative judges.
The frustrations boiled over during Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship Sotomayor: Kavanaugh now part of the Supreme Court 'family' The Hill's 12:30 Report – Sponsored by Delta Air Lines – White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel Hand recount for Florida Senate race MORE'S confirmation fight, with Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) Acknowledging that relations on the Judiciary Committee are still "a little tense."
But Democrats are powerless to stop Trump's nominees on their own after they went nuclear in 2013 and lowered the 60-vote filibuster for most nominations to a simple majority. Republicans followed suit in 2017 and nixed the 60-vote hurdle for Supreme Court picks.
In a further blow to Democrats, Grassley is moving circuit court nominees over the objection of home-state senators. The Senate has confirmed nominees even though one home-state senator did not return their blue slip, a sheet of paper that indicates if they support the nomination.
But if Republicans want to max out the number of judicial nominees they could confirm they'll need to defuse a fight with a member of their own party: Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny Sunday shows preview: New members preview agendas after Democratic House takeover Veteran political reporter says New Hampshire voters have 'hunger' to moderate political turbulence MORE (Ariz.).
Flake, who is retiring in January, is refusing to support judicial nominees until he gets a vote on legislation protecting special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.
"The hope here is that we bring this to a vote and that we can approve some more judges," Flake said. "There's a circuit court judge that I helped get nominated that we would like to see on the 9th Circuit. She's noncontroversial. There are other noncontroversial judges that we ought to be moving through, but the priority here has to be to protect the special counsel. "
No Republicans have said that they will help Flake block nominations on the Senate floor, but the party holds an 11-10 majority on Judiciary Committee meaning controversial nominations, which are regularly passed along party lines, will be blocked at committee level until Republicans can appease Flake or win over a Democrat.
Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinOvernight Health Care – Presented by The Partnership for Safe Medicines – GOP lawmaker pushes back on Trump drug pricing plan | Pfizer to raise prices on 41 drugs next year | Grassley opts for Finance gavel McConnell: Criminal justice bill unlikely this year Trump's backing may not be enough on criminal justice reform MORE (D-Ill.), A member of the panel, praised Flake's tactics, saying he has "struck at the heart of the Republican agenda."
"They are more determined to approve judges than anything else that they're working on," Durbin said.
Republicans discussed how to break Flake's impasse during their final closed-door caucus lunch before the Thanksgiving recess, but did not reach a decision. A GOP senator suggested giving him a symbolic, nonbinding "sense of the Senate" vote, but Flake rejected that offer.
It's not the first time Flake has issued an ultimatum over judicial nominations. He briefly opposed circuit court picks over Trump's tariff policy but dropped his opposition when he got a procedural vote related to trade policy.
With Flake on his way out, McConnell could simply wait until next year. If a nominee is not confirmed by the end of the year, the White House needs to renominate that person – a timely, but not fatal, process.
Republicans will have anywhere from a 52- to 53-seat majority next year. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) clinched a victory over Democratic Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDems seek to overhaul voting rules in Florida legal fight Election Countdown: Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor's race | Latest on Florida recount | Booker, Harris head to campaign in Mississippi Senate runoff Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority Trump's take on midterms: 'Epic' win in Senate, 'better than other sitting Presidents' in House MORE on Sunday. In Mississippi, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and Mike Espy (D) are battling in a runoff scheduled for Nov. 27.
McConnell noted during the Federalist Society event that the Senate was in the "personnel business" and that Republicans would have an "enhanced majority" to confirm judges next year.
"The American people have smiled on the Senate … we're going to keep doing it for two more years," he said.
And Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: New members preview agendas after Democratic House takeover Trump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship On The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal Facebook reeling after damning NYT report MORE (R-S.C.), Who's expected to take over as Judiciary Committee chairman next year, pledged that he would work to confirm conservative judges if colleagues pick him to lead the panel.
"If I am fortunate enough to be selected by my colleagues to serve as chairman, I will push for the appointment and Senate confirmation of highly qualified conservative judges to the federal bench," Graham said.