Gorsuch on path to confirmation as Senate rips up own rules
President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, headed for confirmation on Friday after Republicans tore up the Senate’s voting rules to allow him to ascend to the high court over furious Democratic objections.
"He’s an exceptional choice, and I’m very much looking forward to confirming him today," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said ahead of the vote. "Of course, I wish that important aspects of this process had played out differently."
Vice President Mike Pence was expected to preside as all 52 Republicans and three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — cast their votes for the Supreme Court nominee.
Democrats denounced the GOP’s use of what both sides dubbed the "nuclear option" to put Gorsuch on the court, calling it an epic power grab that would further corrode politics in Congress, the courts and the United States. Many Republicans bemoaned reaching that point, too, but they blamed Democrats for pushing them to it.
"I believe it will make this body a more partisan place," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. "It will make the cooling saucer of the Senate considerably hotter, and I believe it will make the Supreme Court a more partisan place."
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a senior Republican, warned of the implications of lowering the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees, thereby eliminating any role for the minority party in ratifying the selection.
"I am very concerned about the future, which will then, with only a 51-vote majority required, lead to polarization of the nominees as far as their philosophies are concerned, when the majority does not have to consider the concerns and the votes of the minority," McCain said. McCain himself voted to lower the threshold.
The final confirmation vote on Gorsuch was scheduled midday Friday. He is expected to be sworn in within days, in time to hear the final cases of the term. He was nominated by Trump shortly after the January inauguration.
The Senate change, affecting how many votes a nominee needs to advance to a final confirmation vote, will apply to all future Supreme Court candidates as well. Trump himself predicted to reporters aboard Air Force One that "there could be as many as four" Supreme Court vacancies for him to fill during his administration.
"In fact, under a certain scenario, there could even be more than that," Trump said. There is no way to know how many there will be, if any, but several justices are quite elderly.
Even as they united in indignation, lawmakers of both parties, pulled by fierce political forces from left and right, were unwilling to stop the confirmation rules change. The maneuvering played out in a tense Senate chamber Thursday with most members in their seats, a rare and theatrical occurrence.
First Democrats mounted a filibuster, denying Gorsuch the 60 votes needed to advance to a final vote. Then McConnell raised a point of order, suggesting that Supreme Court nominees should not be subjected to a 60-vote threshold but instead a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
McConnell was overruled, but he appealed the ruling. And on that he prevailed on a 52-48 party-line vote. The 60-vote filibuster requirement on Supreme Court nominees was effectively gone, and with it the last vestige of bipartisanship on presidential nominees in an increasingly polarized Senate.
The developments were accompanied by unusually bitter accusations and counter-accusations. And yet in many ways the showdown had been pre-ordained, the final chapter in years of partisan warfare over judicial nominees.
In 2005, with the Senate under GOP control, Republicans prepared to utilize the "nuclear option" to remove the filibuster for lower-court nominees. A bipartisan deal at the time headed off that change. But then in 2013, with Democrats in charge and Republicans blocking President Barack Obama’s nominees, the Democrats did take the step, removing the filibuster for all presidential appointments except the Supreme Court.
McConnell accused Democrats of forcing his hand by trying to filibuster a highly qualified nominee in Gorsuch, 49, a 10-year veteran of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver with a consistently conservative record.
But Democrats were unable to pull back from the brink, partly because they remain livid over McConnell’s decision last year to block Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was denied even a hearing after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Instead McConnell kept Scalia’s seat open, a calculation that is now paying off for Republicans and Trump.
Even as senior Republicans lamented the voting change, McConnell and some allies argued that all they were doing was returning to a time, not long ago, when filibusters of judicial nominees were unusual, and it was virtually unheard-of to try to block a Supreme Court nominee in that fashion.