In a historic vote, Senate Republicans on Thursday crushed "a Democratic blockade" - in Reuters' words - of Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, in a fierce partisan brawl, approving a rule change dubbed the "nuclear option" to allow for conservative judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation by Friday.
The Senate voted 52-48 along party lines to repeal a rule allowing filibusters against Supreme Court nominees,invoking the so-called nuclear option, and clearing the way for Gorsuch confirmation who now needs a simple majority for nomination. Shortly thereafter, the Sante voted 55-45 to end debate on Gorsuch’s nomination, setting up a final vote expected Friday. Thanks to the new rule enacted earlier Thursday, a simple majority was needed.
"This will be the first and last partisan filibuster of the Supreme Court," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, accusing Democrats of trying to inflict political damage on Trump and to keep more conservatives from joining the high court.
"In 20 or 30 or 40 years, we will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court, a day when we irrevocably moved further away from the principles our founders intended for these institutions: principles of bipartisanship, moderation and consensus," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor.
McConnell initiated the rules change by raising a point of order asserting that simple-majority votes should advance Supreme Court nominees to final confirmation votes. Democrats tried to delay it by offering motions to postpone a vote and to adjourn the chamber, but both fell short as Republicans stayed unified.
Earlier Thursday, McConnell said the rules change would restore the Senate’s tradition of considering a Supreme Court nominee based on credentials instead of ideology. He called the Democratic filibuster of Goruch “a radical move” and something “completely unprecedented in the history of our Senate.” “This threatened filibuster cannot be allowed to succeed or to continue for the sake of the Senate, for the sake of the court and for the sake our country,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Democrats successfully blocked Gorsuch’s nomination from getting 60 votes earlier Thursday morning, prompting Republicans to go “nuclear” and change the rules to allow Gorsuch and future Supreme Court nominees to clear the Senate with only a simple majority. Democrats tried to delay the rules change vote by offering motions to postpone a vote and to adjourn the chamber, but both fell short as Republicans stayed unified.
Democrat senators Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) voted with Republicans to allow President Trumps’s pick to move forward.
Republicans defended the party-line vote on the nuclear option, saying Democrats were to blame for blocking Gorsuch, who they believe is eminently qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) argued that Democrats should “come to their senses.”
“The truth of the matter is that throughout this process, the minority led by their leader has been desperately searching for a justification for their preplanned filibuster,” he said ahead of Thursday’s votes.
McConnell added that the current stalemate was part of a decades-long Democratic effort to “politicize the courts and the confirmation process.” “The opposition to this particular nominee is more about the man that nominated him and the party he represents than the nominee himself,” he said.
Republicans hinted for weeks that President Trump’s nominee would be confirmed one way or another. McConnell confirmed during a leadership press conference that he had the votes to go “nuclear” if needed.
According to The Hill, Republicans appeared resigned to the tactics, arguing if Democrats won’t support Gorsuch — who received the American Bar Association’s highest rating — they won’t allow any GOP nominee to join the Supreme Court.
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The Republican-backed rule change on Thursday maintains the ability to filibuster legislation. In the past, the nuclear option has been averted when moderates in the two parties compromised to avoid a showdown, but the ferocious partisanship in Washington now made that impossible.
Experts said eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments could make it more likely that presidents, with little incentive to choose centrist justices who could attract support from the other party, will pick ideologically extreme nominees in the future.
Ending the filibuster also would make it easier for future Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed when the president and Senate leadership belong to the same party.
With the failure of Republican healthcare legislation in Congress and with federal courts blocking the president's ban on people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, securing Gorsuch's confirmation took on even greater importance for Trump, who took office in January.
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Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat court's 5-4 conservative majority, enable Trump to leave an indelible mark on America's highest judicial body and fulfill a top campaign promise by the Republican president. Gorsuch could be expected to serve for decades.
The court's ideological leaning could help determine the outcome of cases involving the death penalty, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations, transgender rights, voting rights, immigration, religious liberty, presidential powers and more.
The nine-seat Supreme Court has had a vacancy since conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.
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Update 2: Republican's start roll call to implement 'nuclear option':
Update 1: As expected, Democrats have just voted to temporarily block Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, setting up a “nuclear option” vote for later in the day. Around 11:30AM EST, Senators voted 55-45 on ending debate over President Trump’s pick leaving Republicans 5 votes shy of the 60 vote threshold required.
As we noted earlier, Republicans are planning a vote later today to remove the 60-vote threshold for cloture on Supreme Court nominees, lowering it to a simple majority.
And with that vote, the official Democrat policy objectives for the next two years have been publicly recorded:
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Back in 2013, before Republicans seized control of the Senate during the 2014 mid-term elections, Democrats became the first party to pursue the "nuclear option" in order to appoint Obama judges over the objection of Republicans. Both Obama and then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid praised the use of the "nuclear option" at the time:
Obama: "The gears of government have to work. And the step that a majority of senators took today, I think, will help make those gears work just a little bit better."
Harry Reid: "It's time to change. It's time to change the Senate before this institution becomes obsolete."
And while Democrats celebrated, Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor to warn his colleagues on the other side of the aisle that they just might come to regret their decision "sooner than you think."
"If you want to play games, set another precedent that you'll no doubt come to regret. To my friends on the other side of the aisle, you'll regret this and you may regret it a lot sooner than you think."
Today, it's looking increasingly likely that "sooner" has come. As NBC reports, barring some unexpected, last-minute deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will almost certainly trigger the so-called 'nuclear option' later today to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Senators spent all day yesterday debating the matter, but the outcome — a permanent change in rules that will affect both the Senate and the nation's highest court — has been as good as settled since at least week when Democrats confirmed they had the votes required to block Gorsuch's nomination.
Here's how it will work:
The Senate is slated to hold a procedural vote, called a cloture around mid-day Thursday. Sixty votes are needed to end debate and move forward to a final vote that requires a simple majority of 51 to confirm Gorsuch.
But Democrats have enough votes to prevent, or filibuster that first step. When the cloture vote fails, McConnell is likely to begin the process of changing the rules to eliminate filibusters on Supreme Court nominations, with a vote on that expected later Thursday afternoon. Then the final up-or-down vote to confirm Gorsuch is expected to take place on Friday.
Meanwhile, the rule change will come after Senate Democrat Jeff Merkley wasted 15.5 hours 'filibustering' on the Senate floor overnight. Ironically, as even Chuck Todd notes in the video below, Merkley fully supported the Democrats' use of the 'nuclear option' in 2013.
As The Hill notes, a group of Republicans and Democrats led by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Christopher Coons (D-Del.) negotiated intensely over the weekend in hopes of avoiding a blowup over the rules, but they fell short.
“The negotiations with which I was heavily involved have failed to come up with a compromise, which saddens me. There’s so little trust between the two parties that it was very difficult to put together an agreement that would avert changing the rules,” Collins told reporters.
“I worked very hard over the weekend, as did several Democrats and several Republicans, but we were not able to reach an agreement,” Collins added, estimating that about 10 lawmakers were involved.
The group held calls as early as 6:30 a.m. and as late as midnight in hopes of avoiding a rule change adopted along party lines.
Coons said the talks fell apart because of pressure from Senate leaders, who weren’t interested in a deal, and from the conservative and liberal bases of the party, who view the Supreme Court’s composition as a top priority.
“The fact that both leaders were opposing negotiations also, frankly, made it difficult,” Coons said. “Both caucus leadership and outside groups were a source of steady and aggressive pressure against some consensus negotiation, in both parties.”
Of course, while Republicans will undoubtedly declare victory tomorrow upon Gorsuch's nomination, it's only a matter of time before the tables are turned once again and their decision comes back to haunt them.