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Sexual Harassment Congress

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2018, file photo, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., listens at the Capitol in Washington. House and Senate negotiators have reached an agreement on a bill to overhaul the process for handling sexual misconduct allegations on Capitol Hill. The push for the legislation took on new urgency in the past year, as more than a half-dozen lawmakers resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Updated at 1:45 p.m. with analysis by a judicial nomination expert. 

WASHINGTON • In a partisan vote, the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday approved new rules proposed by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and James Lankford, R-Okla., designed to expedite the approval of nominees to the courts and Trump administration.

The 10-9 vote came amidst a climate warmed by partisanship over recent decades. Republicans, including Blunt, accused Democrats of unprecedented obstructionism of President Donald Trump's nominees because they don't like the president.

Democrats countered with two words: "Merrick Garland."

He was former President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee who did not even receive a hearing in a Republican-controlled Senate. After Trump was elected president in 2016, that GOP Senate filled the position with Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch.

The proposed changes come when several Democratic senators are also running for President. One, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, and as she sat next to Blunt at Wednesday's hearing, Blunt argued that his proposal to cut Senate debate time on many nominees from 30 to two hours would benefit a President Klobuchar. 

"Presidents deserve to have their team in place," Blunt said of the proposal to cut debate time, which would apply to nominees below cabinet level appointments and to district court judges. Supreme Court nominees and cabinet secretaries would still be subject to the full 30 hours of debate.

Blunt cited statistics he said were illustrative of obstructionism by Senate Democrats: 128 Trump nominees have been forced into "cloture" processes that prolongs debate of inevitably approved nominees, compared with 12 for Obama and four for President George W. Bush over the first two years of their respective presidencies. 

Blunt said that while 923 of Obama's 1,278 nominees were approved in the first two years of his presidency, only 714 of 1,402 of Trump's have.

Democrats countered that Trump has had a record 30 circuit court judges in his first two years, and that they were simply respecting the Senate's tradition of being the world's most deliberative body to fully vet Trump nominees.

In a rare committee appearance, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he had received calls from Trump cabinet secretaries complaining that lower-level nominees had been sitting for a year or more waiting for Senate confirmation.

Blunt said he was offering "the kind of protection we would want if we were in the minority." He and other Republican senators warned that, without this permanent rules change on debate time, a Republican senator in the future could move to obstruct a Democratic president's nominees the same way they say Democrats have, under Trump.

Dragging out the confirmation time, Blunt said, "takes up time that could be used for legislative matters."

But Klobuchar, while acknowledging her recently announced presidential candidacy gave her an extra interest in the rules change, opposed it nonetheless. She said 30 hours was not too much to ask for debate in lifetime judicial appointments. And other Democrats pointed to the quality of Trump's nominees - including a half dozen judicial nominees who got "not qualified" recommendations from the American Bar Association - as ample reason to demand 30 hours of debate time on all nominees.

"In Minnesota, (two hours) is about the time it takes to make a hot dish," Klobuchar said. "But a hot dish is not a lifetime appointment."

Republicans argued they were simply trying to permanently have the Senate live under 2013 rules changed pushed by then Democratic Leader Harry Reid, when Reid lowered the vote approval threshold of judicial nominees from 60 to 51 to contend with what Reid said at the time was unprecedented obstruction of Obama nominees.

But when Blunt and others complained about current Democratic obstruction of Trump nominees, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pointed to the elephant in the room.

"I would say that when it came to a vacancy on the Supreme Court, we saw an unheard of record of obstruction in the Senate," he said of the GOP's refusal to take up the Garland nomination in 2016.

The rules change is now headed to the full Senate, where it likely faces another partisan vote. Republicans now control the Senate, 53-47.

Blunt's chairmanship of the Rules Committee has touched hot-button issues before. He and Klobuchar in the last Congress pushed through strengthened rules on how the Congress deals with sexual assault and harassment allegations. 

But on nominee debate issues, they are split. 

Law professor Carl Tobias, an expert on the judicial nomination process at the University of Richmond, said that both sides have legitimate grievances in how the approvals process has been politicized.

But in making such a major change without Democratic buy-in, he said Republicans will "exacerbate the counterproductive downward spiraling selection process of partisanship, division and incessant paybacks, which undermines public respect for the process, the Senate, the President and even the courts.

"There is plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the aisle, so both parties need to de-escalate and reach an accord to fix the broken system," Tobias said.

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Chuck Raasch is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.