WASHINGTON (AP) — As the Senate departed for a five-week recess Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hailed the chamber's accomplishments, including a hard-won budget deal that staves off a possible government shutdown.
But topping McConnell's list were Senate votes this week confirming 13 of President Donald Trump's judicial nominees. The actions bring to more than 140 the number of judges confirmed by the Senate since Trump took office in 2017.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called the Senate votes "big progress for the federal judiciary," adding that "for too long, thoroughly uncontroversial judicial nominees just like these have been held up and delayed by our Democratic colleagues."
Frustrated by delays in confirming dozens of lower-profile nominees, McConnell and Senate Republicans rammed through a rules change this spring that cut back debate on most of Trump's picks.
The 13 judges approved this week marks a decrease from the 19 judicial nominees Senate Republicans had planned to confirm before leaving Washington until September. Six other nominees are expected to get a vote once the Senate returns.
Liberal activists decried the Senate votes and said Democrats should have worked harder to block the nominees or at least delay them.
"We realize we don't have votes to stop these people, but Democrats shouldn't lay down and confirm judges in a quick timeline," said Brian Fallon, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer who now leads Demand Justice, a progressive group created to counter long-running conservative advocacy on the judiciary.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic candidate for president, faulted Senate Democrats — including several running for president — for failing to block Trump-appointed judges.
"We have to stop giving him a pass," Inslee told MSNBC Thursday. "They've approved his judge selections so they can go on recess. These are lifetime appointments ... It's more important than their vacation, frankly."
The batch of judges approved this week includes several who refused during their confirmation hearings to affirm that the Supreme Court decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided. The 1954 ruling declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Fallon and other activists said Democrats running for president missed an opportunity by not talking about judicial nominees during Wednesday night's presidential debate. "The stakes are too high for presidential candidates to ignore," Fallon said.
Six of the 13 judges approved this week are from Texas, with two each from Illinois and Pennsylvania, and one each from Arizona, North Dakota and Oregon.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, hailed the Texas judges, especially Jason Pulliam, the first African-American judge in the Western District of Texas, and Jeffrey Brown, a Texas Supreme Court justice. Cornyn served on the state Supreme Court before being elected to the Senate.
"Each of these nominees has shown their legal acumen, clear judgment and unwavering commitment to the rule of law," Cornyn said on the Senate floor.
Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, meanwhile, praised the two Illinois judges approved by the Senate, Martha Pacold and Mary Rowland.
Pacold is a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, while Rowland is the first LGBTQ judge Trump has put on the bench. Rowland's confirmation comes as part of a deal Durbin and Duckworth made with the Trump White House that for every three federal district judges in Illinois sought by Republicans, the Democrats get a pick.
A vote on a third Illinois nominee, Steven Seeger, was delayed until September.