WASHINGTON — Stymied legislatively, President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell are turning their attention to one way they can skirt Democratic roadblocks and mollify unhappy Republicans — by filling scores of federal court vacancies.
In Monday’s surprise display of togetherness, both the president and Mr. McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, emphasized their shared desire to begin moving aggressively to install conservative jurists at the appeals and district court level.
Focusing on judges has multiple advantages for both the president and Mr. McConnell. The courts are a longtime priority of conservative activists who have been grumbling about the failures of the Republican Congress, so a flurry of confirmations of nominees with known conservative views on cultural and government issues could quiet some complaints.
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Because of changes in Senate practices instituted by Democrats in 2013, Republicans can now confirm judges on simple majority votes. That virtually guarantees success if enough time and effort are devoted to pushing the nominations through.
Mr. McConnell has also made clear his interest in eliminating the so-called blue slip, one last arcane procedural tool that Democrats have used to slow nominees in the Judiciary Committee. If he is successful in ending that Senate tradition, which gives a senator the right to block a judicial nominee in his or her state, it could greatly accelerate the entire process.
Giving lifetime appointments to dozens of judges favored by conservative judicial activists would also be an important legacy for Mr. Trump since his choices would be handing down opinions for decades no matter who follows him in the White House.
“The judge story is an untold story; nobody wants to talk about it,” an enthusiastic Mr. Trump said during his impromptu appearance with Mr. McConnell. “But when you think about it, Mitch and I were saying, that has consequences 40 years out, depending on the age of the judge — but 40 years out.”
With some conservatives — notably Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist — calling for his head, Mr. McConnell has put new emphasis on his role in winning Senate approval of Trump administration officials and judicial nominees. It is one way to try to mollify some conservatives angered by the inability of the Republican-controlled Congress to deliver.
Mr. McConnell renewed that pitch Monday, reminding Americans that one of the Senate’s major responsibilities is what he called “the personnel business” — handling up to 1,200 executive branch nominations.
Standing alongside the president, he also took the opportunity to remind Mr. Trump that “the single most significant thing this president has done to change America is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.” Mr. McConnell didn’t need to say that it was his own decision in 2016 to refuse to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick B. Garland for the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that held the seat open for Mr. Trump to fill.
“But it’s not just the Supreme Court,” Mr. McConnell said. “There are a lot of vacancies at both the circuit court and district court level.”
At the moment, there about 150 openings on the federal bench – 21 at the influential appeals court level – with 50 nominations pending. Some of those vacancies are because of the refusal by Republicans to act on Obama nominations in the last two years of his administration or their failure to return blue slips when Democrats still held the Senate.
“Many, many are in the pipeline,” Mr. Trump said of his nominees, promising that “we will set records in terms of the number of judges.”
Given the abundance of opportunities, Mr. McConnell reiterated his view that a refusal by Democrats to sign off on home-state nominees should not be allowed to blackball appeals court nominees. He said if that was the case, individual Democrats would have say-so over more than 60 percent of the appeals court candidates.
“That’s simply not a tenable place to land in a Senate that now deals with judges with a simple majority,” Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. Trump was not inclined to get into the arcana of the blue slip process. “My attitude is I just want really capable people going to the courts,” the president said.
Besides blue slips, the other remaining impediment to a flurry of judicial confirmations is time – Senate floor time that is. Though Democrats can no longer block nominees by requiring Republicans to assemble a supermajority of 60 votes, they can require Republicans to follow a procedure that can take more than three days for each individual nominee. And if Democrats conclude Republicans are jamming through judicial nominees, they will no doubt drag their feet as they did earlier this year on executive branch candidates.
To step up the pace of confirmations, Mr. McConnell would probably need to keep the Senate in session for longer durations than the current Monday evening through Thursday afternoon schedule. That change could irritate some lawmakers but conservatives have been pressuring Mr. McConnell to extend the Senate workweek.
Some hard-line conservatives taking aim at Mr. McConnell were not won over by his Rose Garden bonding moment with Mr. Trump.
“Mitch McConnell’s bellyaching about all the time it takes to approve presidential personnel doesn’t hold any water when 1) every other Senate before his has managed to do this in a timely manner, and 2) his Senate works an average of 2.5 days per week,” David Bozell, president of ForAmerica, said in a statement calling for Mr. McConnell to step aside.
Still, Mr. McConnell and the president are both hoping that a parade of conservatives taking up lifetime appointments on the federal bench will make restless Republicans forget — at least for a while — their disappointment in both the Trump administration and their congressional leadership.