President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees will face a slightly easier path after Raphael Warnock’s reelection win in the Georgia runoff provided Democrats with an outright Senate majority for the next two years.
While Democrats have already been able to confirm Biden’s judicial nominees relatively unencumbered with their current Senate edge made possible by control of the executive branch, a 51-seat majority will alleviate some of the hurdles they encountered with contentious picks.
“We can breathe a sigh of relief,” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a Wednesday press conference. “Obviously judges and nominees will be a lot easier to put on the bench.”
Having a majority on the floor and a likely numbers advantage in the Senate Judiciary Committee all but eliminates the chances for committee deadlocks and adds wiggle room for unexpected absences on votes, which has happened due to Covid-19 infections and other medical issues.
For the majority of lower court nominees, one seat won’t make a difference, said Lisa Holmes, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who studies judicial nominations. “But if there is some big fight, having that one extra vote to spare surely is what Democrats want,” Holmes said.
Judicial nominations need only a simple majority to be confirmed, and Senate Democrats have so far voted in lockstep on those selections.
Just one judicial pick needed Vice President Kamala Harris’ help to break a tie, and it was only on the vote to move her nomination out of committee after a deadlock. Harris cast the tiebreaking vote when the Senate tied 49-49 on a motion to discharge Jennifer Sung’s nomination to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last year.
Absences and committee ties, however, slowed some nominations. An apparent vote-counting issue in September gave Democrats their first failed confirmation attempt under Biden. Several nominees whose nominations tied in committee have also waited months for a floor vote to move forward. The most recent committee tie was on First Circuit nominee Julie Rikelman Dec. 1.
“There should be some savings in terms of time because you won’t be slowed down by the need to go through the discharge,” Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
A new organizing resolution between the parties will likely give Democrats one more seat than Republicans on the committee, Binder said. She noted that a one-seat difference on the Judiciary committee has been the practice in past 51-49 Senate splits.
The Judiciary committee is currently split 11-11. The committee next Congress would likely be 12-11 or 11-10, she said.
—With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich
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