Mitch McConnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Before the filibuster was eliminated for most presidential nominees, the White House needed to negotiate with the other party to assure that their candidates were at least minimally acceptable. Without a handful of votes from the other side, there was no way to get their people confirmed. President Trump would have been laughed out of town if he suggested that he might select Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to serve on the Federal Reserve Board. In retrospect, the old system often saved the Senate leaders of the president’s own party from having to play the heavy. Ridiculous nominees were generally rejected internally within the White House vetting process for lack of viability. If they somehow slipped through and were sent to the Senate, the opposition party played the bad guy by rejecting them.

This system has now been upended. The Republicans in the Senate have no cover anymore if they want to deny the president a nomination. The solution is to tell the White House in advance that they should not make these nominations because they’ll be rejected.

Senate Republican leaders are sending a message to members troubled by President Donald Trump’s controversial Federal Reserve picks: Speak up.

During Tuesday afternoon’s Senate Republican lunch, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advised senators concerned about Trump’s selection of former presidential candidate and pizza executive Herman Cain and conservative economic commentator Stephen Moore to share their views with the White House now, before Trump officially moves forward with the nominations, a source familiar with the remarks told CNN.

The basic conversation here is pretty straightforward. A Republican senator or his or her staffer calls the White House chief of staff or the congressional liaison. They tell them that if they go forward with a nomination, they cannot count on their vote. If enough Republican senators send this message to the White House, they can dissuade the nomination from going forward. This benefits the White House by allowing it to avoid embarrassment. This is also a benefit to the potential nominees. Republican Senators benefit from being able to buck their own president quietly and behind the scenes and still not come under pressure to back someone who is manifestly unfit for the position.

You can see how uneasy the Senate Republicans are about defying the president.

In hallway interviews with nearly 20 Republican senators on Tuesday, most were reluctant to candidly discuss Cain’s potential nomination. Many said they hadn’t heard the days-old news that Trump was planning to select him. Others opted to withhold comment, while some expressed vague reservations.

Most of them are uncomfortable even discussing these nominations. Some responses lack candor and others are outright disingenuous. They want to issue to disappear, but they are the only ones who can make the issue disappear. Most of all, they’d like to avoid being put in this position in the first place:

Republicans are in a slightly better position to confirm contentious appointees than they were before the 2018 midterm elections, with their new majority of 53, but they can still afford to lose only a few votes before any nomination would be doomed.

That concern prompted Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on Tuesday to warn the White House to consult in advance with Senate leaders on nominations like these.

The Senate is supposed to provide their advice and consent to presidential nominations, and certainly the hearing process can give them that opportunity. But it’s better politics to do most of the vetting prior to making any announcements. The president clearly expects Senate Republicans to approve anyone he nominates because it is now technically within their power to approve people with no Democratic support.

Many warned that the Senate would break if the filibuster was weakened or eliminated, and here is an example of a worst case scenario. By blocking acceptable nominations during the Obama administration just to slow down business in the Senate, Mitch McConnell forced the Democrats to find a work-around. Now the Republicans are having difficulty rejecting ludicrous candidates because the White House sees no reason not to send them forward.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at