US Republicans swatted away decades of tradition Thursday by changing Senate rules to ensure Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, bypassing the first-ever successful opposition block on a high-court nominee.
President Donald Trump’s pick, embraced by conservatives but opposed by most Democrats, failed to receive the 60 votes necessary to end debate on his nomination and move to a simple majority confirmation vote in the 100-seat Senate.
In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to change the rules to ensure that a simple majority suffices to advance Gorsuch — and all subsequent Supreme Court nominees — from the debate to a confirmation vote.
The rule change — known as the “nuclear option” — was approved along party lines in the Republican-controlled Senate, landing like a political earthquake in a chamber already straining to adhere to its traditions of consensus and bipartisanship.
“Our Democrat colleagues have done something today that is unprecedented in the history of the Senate,” McConnell said in seeking to justify his potentially far-reaching step.
“Unfortunately, it has brought us to this point. We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster.”
From this point on, any effort in the Senate to hold up a presidential nominee can be overcome with a simple majority.
That is what happened minutes after the rule change, with the Senate voting again to advance Gorsuch’s nomination — this time successfully, by a vote of 55 to 45.
A final confirmation vote on Gorsuch is now set for Friday.
The tit-for-tat maneuvers — filibuster followed by nuclear option — are almost certain to change the tone and temper of the Senate, and lead to more fringe high-court justices being approved on either political side.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer pointed the finger at Republicans, but said he took “no solace” in blaming his political rivals because the consequences of the change will be so dramatic.
“The nuclear option means the end of a long history of consensus on Supreme Court nominations,” he said ahead of the vote, describing the Senate’s ability to use the 60-vote threshold as “the guardrail of our democracy.”
“The answer is not to undo the guardrails, the rules. It’s to steer back to the middle, and get a more mainstream candidate.”
‘Talking past each other’
Most Democrats remain livid with Republican leaders for refusing to even give a hearing to Merrick Garland, the judge nominated last year by Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court seat of conservative justice Antonin Scalia who died in February 2016.
McConnell and his fellow Republicans expressed no interest in Trump going back to the drawing board to find a new nominee in the face of Democratic resistance.
But several in the party did voice concerns about changing the rules of what they proudly refer to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”
“We are in a terrible place,” a somber Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said late Wednesday on the floor.
“What we are poised to do at the end of this week will have tremendous consequences and I fear that someday we will regret what we’re about to do.”
Nevertheless McConnell and company forged ahead, infuriated by Democrats’ insistence on filibustering what Republicans consider a mainstream Supreme Court nominee.
“We’re just talking past each other,” Democrat Schumer lamented, as he sought in vain to pull his colleagues back from the brink.
Senator Richard Blumenthal warned of the “enduring fallout and rippling repercussions” of Thursday’s moves.
“Sadder than anything is the damage caused to two pillars of democracy: the Supreme Court and the Senate itself,” the Democrat said in a withering post-vote statement.
“Respect and trust for the Court — so essential for the practical force of its rulings -– has been gravely undermined by raw political conflict.”