McConnell Pushing Senate to Adopt Two-Hour Debate Limit

April 3, 2019 Updated: April 3, 2019

WASHINGTON—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a huge first step Wednesday afternoon to enacting a new rule limiting debate on most presidential nominations to two hours.

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, had to raise a point of order after the Senate approved a cloture motion to limit debate to 30 hours on President Donald Trump’s nominations of Jeffrey Kessler as an assistant secretary of commerce.

When McConnell raised the point of order to instead set a two-hour limit, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), sitting as the Senate Presiding Officer, ruled against the majority leader.

McConnell appealed the ruling and senators voted to overrule the presiding officer on a 51-48 count.

Later today, senators are scheduled to take up Trump’s nomination of Roy Altman as a federal district court judge in Florida. The same process will be repeated and if McConnell again wins his appeal, the two-hour limit will be established, according to his office.

Prior to McConnell’s point of order, Senate rules provided 30 hours of debate on a nomination if at least 60 members of the upper chamber voted in favor of cloture, the term for establishing a deadline for debate.

The two-hour limit was part of Senate Resolution 50 proposed by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) that was defeated April 2 when it failed to gain 60 votes on the cloture motion to limit debate.

That failure will become moot if McConnell’s wins on the Altman point of order appeal, thus limiting post-cloture debate to two hours on all sub-cabinet and lower federal court nominations.

Earlier in a day of rancorous debate, McConnell cited the Kessler nomination as “a textbook case study” of how Democrats had erected unprecedented delays on Trump’s nominees during the president’s first two years in office.

“Jeffrey Kessler of Virginia was first nominated to serve as assistant secretary of commerce in November of 2017,” McConnell said.

“It took seven months before Democrats on the finance committee allowed his nomination to be considered, but when it was, Mr. Kessler was reported out by a unanimous vote. Nobody opposed him on the finance committee.

“And the familiar story continues. Another six months of inaction. The nomination was sent back to the White House at the end of the last Congress. So, the process started all over again.

“This time, he got a voice vote in the finance committee. Everybody just said ‘aye.’  And yet, here on the floor, inexplicably, it has still required a cloture motion to break through the obstruction and get this unobjectionable nominee—that no one voted against—a vote.”

“This is not a bad day for the Senate. This is the day we end this outrageous obstruction,” McConnell said.

Democrats are opposed to the shorter limit, with, for example, Sen. Amy Kloubachar declaring that “two hours for a lifetime appointment is unacceptable … it’s ridiculous, it’s a mockery of how this institution ought to work.”

But in 2013 when President Barack Obama was in the Oval Office and Democrats under Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) controlled the upper chamber, a similar two-hour rule was agreed to with Republican support, led by McConnell.

“In other words, a significant number of Republicans joined up with all the Democrats in 2013 to do something almost exactly like what we will be proposing later today, to help President Obama,” McConnell said prior to the Kessler proceedings.

“He had just gotten re-elected, do you think we were happy about that? We weren’t, but we thought the executive calendar should be expedited for these kinds of nominations that we’re discussing today.”