President Donald Trump should give special thanks to two U.S. Senators this Thanksgiving weekend. One is still serving in the Senate, the other recently retired. One is a Republican. The other a Democrat. And what should President Trump be thanking them for? Quite simply they have handed him one of the biggest victories any president could claim in the past 45 years.
Yes, this has happened even as one of the most widely covered stories of the past year has been President Trump's difficulties in working with Congress. The growing rift between him and Republican Senators John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker alone has made headlines for months. For a U.S. president to have this many public feuds with senators from his own party this early in his presidency is really unprecedented and makes for hot news copy.
But that story ignores a bigger and longer-lasting development in the federal judiciary. That brings us first to naming the Republican gift giver: Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa. The longtime member of Congress has big time clout as the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And Grassley has just used that clout to eliminate one of the final hurdles in the already furious pace of Trump administration judicial appointments to the federal bench.
Late last week, Grassley decided not to honor a Senate tradition of holding up hearings for judicial nominees who aren't cleared by their own home state senators. That tradition is known as the "blue slip courtesy" born out of time before nationwide communication technology when a given state's senators had access to much more information about nominees than their colleagues from the rest of the country. Grassley correctly noted that Democrats were now trying to use the blue slips tradition to replace the filibuster, and he's having none of that. As recently as last month, the Democrats and much of the news media's punditry were expecting Grassley, who is no fan of the president, to keep the blue slip tradition in place. But Grassley gave Trump this very special gift instead.
And that brings us to the Democrat who provided the initial generous source of President Trump's solid triumph: Former Senate Majority Leader, and Democrat, Harry Reid. Reid is a major reason this good fortune has befallen President Trump because Reid was the one who killed the filibuster rule for judicial nominees in 2013. And when he killed it, it was gone for good.
Republicans were powerless to stop a series of President Obama's judicial nominees after that. That is, until they won control of the Senate in the 2014 elections. The GOP may have failed at using that majority to achieve much, especially making even a dent in Obamacare. But they were able to freeze the Obama nomination process in its tracks, most notably by delaying and eventually killing Merrick Garland's nomination for the Supreme Court.
That long period of confirmation obstruction has given President Trump a huge number of seats to fill; twice as many as President Obama's also large number of vacancies when he took office in 2009. The Christian Science Monitor reports this is likely the most vacancies for a president to fill in 40 years. And the Trump team hasn't been wasting much time.
For those who believe President Trump won the 2016 election thanks to a series of Democratic Party errors, this is cut from the exact same cloth.
Consider that as of November 3rd, 13 Trump nominees to the courts have been confirmed this year. The big name is Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, but we also have eight new federal appeals court judges, and four new U.S. district court judges. President Trump has now already surpassed the last four presidents' records for first-year judicial confirmations. And he's even tied President Ronald Reagan number of appeals court confirmations in year one.
But this isn't just about sheer numbers, it's about ideology too. While President Trump and conservatives have diverged in matters of policy several times over the past year, the judicial nomination process is decidedly not one of them. The nominees sent to the Senate from the White House are more conservative and even younger than what we saw during President George W. Bush's two terms in office.
In case the importance of making an impact on the courts is lost on anyone, just note the many setbacks the Trump administration has suffered this year alone thanks to the courts. Delays and changes to the White House-imposed travel and immigration bans have grabbed the most attention. But the administration is also dealing with judicial push back and other potential hurdles on everything from its opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner merger to its transgender military ban.
Now fast forward a couple of years where the Trump judicial appointment surge will have set in across the federal system. Just for this administration alone, that could make a huge difference. And for conservative causes and cases over time, it will be even more significant.
Sure, the tax reform and Obamacare repeal bills may be jeopardized by internal spats between the GOP and the White House. But real history is being made in the courts all thanks to a bad bet made by Senator Reid and remarkable cooperation between the Trump team, Senator Grassley, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. While the fights with other senators like Flake et al may grab headlines, these judicial confirmations will have a much bigger impact.
And unless the Democrats win control of the Senate in 2018, there's nothing they can do about it.
So on this Thanksgiving weekend the most grateful person in America should be President Trump. An unlikely set of benefactors has truly given him the political gift that will keep on giving.
Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.
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