WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans plan to push ahead next week with a confirmation hearing for a contested nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, moving on a rapid timetable that signals they intend to remain aggressive this year in putting conservative judges on the bench, even amid a pandemic.
A top Republican aide and others knowledgeable about the plans said the Judiciary Committee planned to hold a hearing as soon as next Wednesday to consider the nomination of Justin Walker, a U.S. District Court judge in Kentucky who is a protégé of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader.
The quick action reflects a new urgency on the part of Mr. McConnell to fulfill his pledge to “leave no vacancy behind” when it comes to installing judicial nominees. The coronavirus outbreak has cost valuable time he had planned to spend on the effort, forcing the Senate into an extended recess.
It has also contributed to a grim political environment for Republicans, which could lift Democrats in the push to take over the Senate next year. A change in Senate control would bring an abrupt end to Mr. McConnell’s successful drive — in cooperation with President Trump — to place scores of conservatives on the federal bench.
The majority leader’s office confirmed on Tuesday that the Senate would return to Washington on Monday as planned even though House leaders abruptly scrapped their scheduled return on the advice of congressional officials, including Congress’s attending physician.
On a conference call with Republican senators on Tuesday, Mr. McConnell informed his colleagues that the Judiciary Committee would continue to move forward on judges upon their return, according to people knowledgeable about the call who did not want to be identified disclosing internal deliberations. At least one Republican said the party should be looking beyond judges given the pandemic.
“As much as judges are important, what people want us to be focused on is Covid,” said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, the people said.
The prospect of a confirmation hearing also drew a rebuke from Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee, who wrote to Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and the chairman, to urge him to cancel it so the panel could focus on immediate pandemic issues.
“There is no urgency to moving lifetime appointments at this juncture,” the letter said. “There is, however, considerable urgency — and growing public demand — for oversight of the federal government’s response to Covid-19,” the Democrats wrote.
“Now is not the time to process routine judicial nominations,” they added.
Mr. McConnell has been unapologetic about what his top priority is.
“As soon as we get back in session, we’ll start confirming judges again,” Mr. McConnell told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last week. “We need to have hearings, and we need to confirm judges.”
Republicans have their eyes on confirming more than judges. The Senate Intelligence Committee could also convene a confirmation hearing next week for Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, Mr. Trump’s nominee to be the director of national intelligence. Senators in both parties are eager to put in place a permanent spy chief, particularly at a time when intelligence gathering will play a large role in understanding the effects of the pandemic on American interests around the globe.
And Mr. Trump has agitated for the Senate to get back to work confirming his nominees, threatening this month that if it did not, he would use a never-before-invoked power to force Congress to adjourn so that he could fill government vacancies himself. (Mr. McConnell promptly issued a statement making it clear that would not happen, and saying that he had promised Mr. Trump he would work to confirm nominees who were “mission-critical to the Covid-19 pandemic.”)
Mr. Trump nominated Judge Walker, 37, to the prestigious appeals court on April 3, less than six months after he began serving on the district court bench. He was confirmed to that post last October despite being rated as unqualified by the American Bar Association because of his lack of experience. Mr. McConnell has known Judge Walker since he was in high school, considers him a brilliant legal mind and took him to the Oval Office this year to meet with the president.
A former clerk to Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Judge Walker was one of his most ardent defenders during the brutal Supreme Court confirmation battle in 2018. Mr. McConnell and Justice Kavanaugh traveled to Louisville in March for Judge Walker’s formal investiture as a district court judge before his latest nomination.
Progressive and civil rights groups opposed Judge Walker’s nomination initially and plan to do so again. In a letter sent to senators on Monday, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urged a vote against his confirmation, calling his nomination “a triumph of nepotism over neutrality” given his close relationship with Mr. McConnell. The group faulted Judge Walker for his stated opposition to the Affordable Care Act and what it described as ideologically charged comments in defense of Justice Kavanaugh, among other concerns.
“At this perilous time in our nation’s history, the Senate should maintain a laser focus on efforts to save lives and mitigate the devastating economic impact of Covid-19 on the American people,” the letter said. “The Senate should not process judicial nominations — particularly those like Mr. Walker who seek to dismantle health care protections for vulnerable people — until the shock of the pandemic has been diminished.”
Despite the opposition, Democrats cannot block Judge Walker’s nomination without some Republican defections under Senate rules that allow nominees to win approval on a simple majority vote. Judge Walker had unanimous Republican support last year, and it seems unlikely that any of Mr. McConnell’s colleagues would want to cross him on a nomination in which he has such a strong personal interest without a very good reason. Judge Walker is highly regarded in the conservative judicial advocacy community.
The District of Columbia appeals court is considered a steppingstone to the Supreme Court, and its importance was on display on Tuesday when the court heard arguments by conference call in two cases with major significance for the balance of power between Congress and the White House.
With the available vacancies shrinking, Mr. McConnell and other Senate Republicans have reached out to sitting federal judges eligible for retirement to encourage them to think about stepping aside now if they want to be sure their successors are named by a Republican president.
If the Senate proceeds with confirmation hearings, it will take some creativity and may require limits on the number of lawmakers in the room at any one time to allow appropriate social distancing between them and the nominees being questioned as well as other spectators who are allowed in.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.