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Bill Straub: ‘Root and Branch’ McConnell manages to take both sides of an issue when it suits his purpose


WASHINGTON – Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root and Branch’’ McConnell is very much like one of those troubled volunteer fireman you hear about on occasion – the secret pyromaniac who sets the fires and then accepts the public plaudits for extinguishing them.

The Louisville lawmaker’s talents are currently on full display during the debate over President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. With Democrats understandably balking as the result of a series of blazes ol’ Root and Branch has personally touched off, the great man is solemnly toiling to make sure Gorsuch assumes his ill-gotten position on the nation’s highest judicial panel.

In order to achieve that goal, McConnell, more in sadness than in anger, you can bet, is preparing to launch what is popularly known as the “nuclear option,’’ depriving minority Democrats of the long-held ability to filibuster a high court nominee, which requires 60 supportive votes rather than the traditional simple majority of 51 to move forward.

The Democrats’ effort to bring Senate action on Gorsuch to a standstill is accurately described by McConnell – a noteworthy achievement in itself – as the first time a high court nominee has ever been confronted by a filibuster.

Sen. Mitch McConnell

“Will a partisan minority of the Senate really prevent the Senate’s pro-Gorsuch bipartisan majority from confirming him?’’ McConnell rhetorically asked on the Senate floor this week. “Will they really subject this eminently qualified nominee to the first successful partisan filibuster in American history? Americans will be watching, history will be watching, and the future of the Senate will hang on their choice.’’

And the answer is yes, Democrats are prepared to use Senate rules as they currently exist to waylay Gorsuch. They really don’t have any choice. To step away from the fight is to condone years of patently appalling actions taken by McConnell and his fellow Republicans – at least one spitting in the face of the U.S. Constitution. If they fail to stand their ground now they may very well have to do it the next time a high court slot opens.

And there’s certainly no reason to trust that McConnell will act in any sort of civilized or commonly decent way now or anytime in the future. That train left long ago.

So let’s consider the circumstances. It should be noted first off that Republicans, particularly conservative Republicans, take the appointments of federal judges much more seriously than Democrats. That seems odd since the moderate-left has scored so many victories over the years in the courtroom in areas like civil rights and the environment. Only recently same-sex marriage was realized via Supreme Court action.

But these appointments are not frequently the priority of rank-and-file Democrats. Former President Bill Clinton rather famously refused to expend political capital on his judicial nominees. And while the proposition may sound counter-intuitive, it should be noted that Former President Barack Obama didn’t exactly bloody any noses to get his picks through either.

Republicans, on the other hand, handle these appointments with due urgency, to their benefit, and are certainly more aggressive in opposing Democratic nominees to the bench.

The situation ran off the rails during the Obama administration. Ol’ Root and Branch launched an unprecedented number of filibusters against Obama court nominees beginning almost the moment the Democrat assumed office.

During the first five years of the Obama presidency, just as an example, nominees to the district court had to wait more than 180 days 69 percent of the time, compared to 28 percent for his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. Most of that can be attributed to GOP stalling tactics, which caused substantial problems within the federal judiciary that continue to this day.

When Obama assumed office in January 2009, he inherited 53 judicial vacancies, thanks to the Democratic Senate’s willingness to work with his Republican predecessor. On the other hand, because of the McConnell-led recalcitrance, Obama’s successor, President Trump – yes, it still sticks in the craw – inherited 103, give or take.

The conflict came to a head in October 2011 when McConnell and Republicans held up three Obama nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit – considered the nation’s second most powerful and influential panel behind only the Supreme Court itself. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, employed the nuclear option, prohibiting filibusters on district and circuit court nominees but keeping it in place for those tabbed for the Supreme Court.

McConnell at the time responded:

“So here are the battle lines. On one side are people who think that presidents should have the power to unconstitutionally ignore Congress and their constituents – people who believe in it so firmly, they’re willing to irreparably damage the Senate to ensure they get their way. They’re willing to do something the majority leader himself said would contribute to the ruination of our country.’’

Of course now, exhibiting his renowned skill to switch sides quicker than you can say Jack Robinson when it serves his purposes, McConnell is looking to go even further by killing filibusters on Supreme Court nominees, leading to, one would presume, as he predicted, the “ruination of our country.’’

The record conclusively shows that Mitch “Root and Branch’’ McConnell is the most amoral of politicians whose only desire is to prevail regardless of what harm it might do to society and all this just offers further proof.

But the question remains why Democrats are willing to go to the mat over Gorsuch, even though he is outside the mainstream and exhibited the ability to avoid the pointed questions posed by some on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a manner similar to Stephen Curry eluding defenders on the dribble. Gorsuch will almost surely take his place as one of the court’s most conservative members despite claims he leaves politics at the courthouse door – his ties to the Federalist Society belie that.

Democrats are reacting, justifiably, to McConnell’s revolting mistreatment of Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court seat now within Gorsuch’s reach. Ol’ Root and Branch treated Garland in a way Bill Sykes wouldn’t treat a dog, effectively stealing a seat on the high court while tiptoeing around his constitutional duties.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016 and, before his body reached room temperature, McConnell made it known that the Senate would not consider any Obama nomination to fill the seat, citing some silly, unwritten rule that he pulled out of his…ear that such posts should not be filled during a president’s final year in office as his cheap justification.

In so doing McConnell dismissed the Constitution’s “advise and consent’’ clause with a wave of the hand. Obama nominated Garland, who didn’t warrant so much as a hearing or an audience with Republican members of the upper chamber.

Here is McConnell in October 2013, reacting to Reid implementing the first stage of the nuclear option:

“We’re the folks who believe deeply that a president of any party should work within the bounds of the Constitution, and that senators of both parties should fulfill their own constitutional obligations to thoroughly vet nominees. But we also believe in giving those nominees a fair hearing. And if you look at the facts, you’ll see we’ve already been doing just that.’’

Well, no. At least in Garland’s case the Senate didn’t do just that because of the McConnell power grab, offering further substantiation of his ability to turn on a dime and do the expedient thing when it serves his purposes and Democrats would be wrong to permit his ludicrous actions – from slow-walking judicial nominees, thus increasing the number of federal court districts in crisis, to the snubbing of Garland – to proceed sans protest.

The record conclusively shows that Mitch “Root and Branch’’ McConnell is the most amoral of politicians whose only desire is to prevail regardless of what harm it might do to society and all this just offers further proof.

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Washington correspondent Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.


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One Comment

  1. Judith Oetinger says:

    Thank you, Bill. Always appreciate your thorough and articulate reporting on the shell games our wiley coyote, McConnell, plays with his merry band of partisan groupies, following along without a clue..

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