WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Thursday ended the Democratic filibuster of US Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch by changing the Senate’s rules for voting on those nominees.
The move — known as the “nuclear option” — makes it all but certain that President Donald Trump’s first high court nominee will be confirmed by the weekend.
Gorsuch’s nomination will now proceed to a final vote by the Senate on Friday, where the Republican majority is expected to confirm him — a significant win for the Trump administration that will resonate for decades not only on the Supreme Court, but in the Senate as well.
Democrats filibustered the nomination on Thursday morning, defeating a motion to end debate, known as cloture. After the failed cloture vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell initiated a series of procedural moves to change the interpretation of Senate rules about the number of votes needed to invoke cloture on Supreme Court nominations — from three-fifths of the Senate, or 60 votes, down to a simple majority.
The rule-change move by McConnell was presented as an expansion of the move Democrats made in 2013 under then-Majority Leader Harry Reid — invoking the nuclear option to lower the cloture threshold for lower court and executive branch nominees.
Republicans voted 52-48 in favor of making the change to cloture rules on Supreme Court nominations, called the nuclear option because it blows up long-standing Senate process.
The change, which will now apply going forward, effectively ends the ability of a party in the minority to filibuster a president’s Supreme Court nominee. Absent the threat of a filibuster and, consequently, the need to compromise, presidents may feel more free in the future to nominate judges and justices who fall closer to the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum.
Moments after the rule-change vote, a vote on cloture was held again. From the chair, Sen. Orrin Hatch announced the 55-45 vote in favor cloture under the new rule.
"Upon reconsideration, the cloture motion is agreed to," Hatch — a longtime former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee — said.
In the weeks leading up to Thursday’s vote, senators from both parties had lamented the impending change to the cloture threshold. Democrats insisted that Republicans could avoid the dramatic change by going back and trying to negotiate a consensus nominee. Republicans scoffed at the offer, saying that Democrats’ opposition was rooted solely in political considerations and not Gorsuch’s qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court.
“I think it will clearly lead to more extreme appointments on both sides and I think it's a terrible mistake that we will regret for many, many years to come. And we're on a slippery slope, no matter what they tell you. We went from the judges, to Supreme Court Justice, what's next,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said. “It's a bad day for Democracy."
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican, said that there was “fault on both sides” for Thursday’s events.
“Look, I've got a yellow lab named Ben and an English cocker named Buster that could have led us to a better place than where we are today,” Corker said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary committee, asked for her reaction to today's events, cited the "humiliation" Obama's nominee for the vacancy, Judge Merrick Garland, had to endure — but stopped short of calling Gorsuch's nomination a stolen seat.
"I wouldn't say they stole a court seat. I would say they denied a president a year of his presidency," she said. "This is the hard part: What goes around comes around."
At the same time, she held out hope for the future, saying, "Well, we've been through hard times before, and there's something in the Senate that eventually drives people together because we basically want to get things done -- and that's true on both sides."
Democrats who oppose Gorsuch have argued he represents far-right interests and that a handful of his more controversial decisions are outside the mainstream. Some Democrats also believe the vacancy on the high court, left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, was stolen by Republicans who refused to advance the confirmation process for Judge Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s pick for the job.
Republicans, meanwhile, have said Gorsuch is a well-qualified jurist whose record places him well within the mainstream of judicial thinking. They also argued that if Democrats wouldn’t support a judge like Gorsuch, they would never support a Supreme Court nominee from a GOP president in the future.
The move to change the rule came less than an hour after Senate Democrats filibustered Gorsuch's nomination.
The initial procedural vote to end debate on Gorsuch's nomination and proceed to a final confirmation vote failed Thursday morning after 45 Democrats voted against it. At that point, cloture on Supreme Court nominees required 60 votes, but Republicans hold only 52 seats in the chamber. Four Democrats — Sens. Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, and Michael Bennet — joined the Republicans in voting for cloture. McConnell, for procedural purposes, voted against cloture in order to be able to raise the issue again immediately.
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Chris Geidner is a Supreme Court correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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