Senate Republicans Go Nuclear to Clear the Way for Gorsuch Confirmation

By Emily Cox
Republicans Get Gorsuch Confirmation by Changing the Rules
Photo by James Palinsad

Senate Republicans bypassed a precedent-breaking Democratic filibuster and deployed the “nuclear option” Thursday to change longstanding chamber rules and clear the way for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, to be confirmed Friday.

Gorsuch Opposition

Democrats opposed Gorsuch for a variety of reasons. These include his conservative judicial philosophy and dissatisfaction with his confirmation hearing responses. Furthermore, there is a tangible resentment toward Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, blocking any consideration of President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, last year. After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, McConnell blockaded the vacancy. He claimed neither party would approve a Supreme Court justice during an election year. However, he later admitted that it was not actual policy and based on something Joe Biden once said in 1992. In an interview with NBC News, he wasn’t willing to apply the principal to all circumstances going forward either.

“We believe that what Republicans did to Merrick Garland was worse than a filibuster,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The Rule Change that Saved Gorsuch’s Confirmation

Under traditional Senate rules, Republicans needed 60 votes to advance Gorsuch. This means at least eight Democrats and independents would have to join the 52-seat majority. However, Republicans were unable to defect nearly enough Democrats, leaving the vote at 55-45. Instead of choosing to allow the president’s nominee to fail, the GOP chose to bulldoze a long-held Senate practice and change the threshold on Supreme Court nominations from 60 to 51 votes. This would entail a simple majority. The Senate approved the landmark rule change 52-48. All Democrats opposed it.

“They have no interest in playing by the rules,” Patrick J. Leahy, D-VT, said Wednesday. “They prefer to break them.”

This fundamentally changes one of the Senate’s most significant duties after decades of at least relative bipartisanship on Supreme Court matters. If confirmation only requires a simple majority, both parties predict that the shift will result in more ideologically extreme judges.

Senate Democrats first changed the Senate rules in 2013 to prevent Republican filibusters of presidential nominees to lower courts and other government positions. However, they left Supreme Court nominee filibusters intact to acknowledge the high court’s sacrosanct role. Now a simple majority vote can confirm all presidential nominees. This means that Senate majority all but controls which nominations are advanced, while the minority has no recourse.

While this change does not affect legislative filibuster, there is speculation that this rule change could be the beginning of the end. However, Senate Republican leaders have vowed that this will not happen under their leadership.

“I’d rather lose than be part of killing the Senate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham told Buzzfeed.

However, it seems that Republicans have taken a significant step in that very direction by refusing to lose on the Gorsuch vote.

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