Senate Republicans Deploy ‘Nuclear Option’ to Clear Path for Gorsuch

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Thursday engineered a dramatic change in how the chamber confirms Supreme Court nominations, bypassing a Democratic blockade of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch in a move that will most likely reshape both the Senate and the court.

After Democrats held together Thursday morning and filibustered President Trump’s nominee, Republicans voted to lower the threshold for advancing Supreme Court nominations from 60 votes to a simple majority.

In deploying this so-called nuclear option, lawmakers are fundamentally altering the way the Senate handles one of its most significant duties, further limiting the minority’s power in a chamber that was designed to be a slower and more deliberative body than the House.

The move, once unthinkable among senators, is a testament to the creeping partisan rancor in recent years, after decades of at least relative bipartisanship on Supreme Court matters. Both parties have warned of sweeping effects on the court itself, predicting the elevation of more ideologically extreme judges now that only a majority is required for confirmation.

Senate Democrats in 2013 first changed the rules of the Senate to block Republican filibusters of presidential nominees to lower courts and to government positions. But they left the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees untouched, an acknowledgment of the court’s exalted status. On Thursday, that last pillar was swept away on a party-line vote, with all 52 Republicans choosing to overrule Senate precedent and all 48 Democrats and liberal-leaning independents pushing to keep it.

For weeks, the demise of the Supreme Court filibuster had seemed preordained — like a moldering stadium with a demolition date — even as members lamented the inevitability as a low moment for the Senate. In recent days, faint rumblings of a deal to avert the clash had faded almost entirely.

Democrats placed the blame squarely on Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and his Republican colleagues, who last year refused to even consider Judge Merrick B. Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died nearly 14 months ago.

“When history weighs what happened, the responsibility for changing the rules will fall on the Republicans’ and Leader McConnell’s shoulders,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, who had called for the withdrawal of the nomination if Judge Gorsuch could not earn 60 votes.

“They have had other choices,” he added. “They have chosen this one.”

Lawmakers first convened late Thursday morning to decide whether to advance the nomination. Republicans needed 60 votes — at least eight Democrats and independents joining the 52-seat majority — to end debate on the nomination and proceed to a final vote. Only a handful of Democrats defected, leaving Republicans to choose between allowing the president’s nominee to fail or bulldozing long-held Senate practice.

The final confirmation vote is set for Friday.

Republicans argued that changing the rules to push through the nomination was their only option, accusing Democrats of razing Senate norms with the first-ever successful partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. Allowing this obstruction to stand, Republicans said, would have caused more damage than overriding Senate precedent to turn back the filibuster.

“This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,” Mr. McConnell said, after describing Democratic opposition in the past to Judge Robert H. Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. “And it cannot and it will not stand. There cannot be two sets of standards: one for the nominees of the Democratic president and another for the nominees of Republican presidents.”

But Democrats had shown no signs of forsaking their filibuster plans all week. Their stance has pleased their most progressive voters, who have preached resistance to Mr. Trump at every opportunity.

Critics of Judge Gorsuch said they had identified ample reasons to oppose him, chafing at the suggestion that Democrats are merely seeking payback for Judge Garland. They cited concerns over Judge Gorsuch’s record on workers’ rights and wondered whether he could be reliably independent from Mr. Trump and conservative groups like the Federalist Society, which pushed his nomination.

But at times on Thursday, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that Judge Garland loomed largest in the minds of Democrats.

After Mr. McConnell suggested from the Senate floor that Republicans had given due deference in the past to Supreme Court nominees under Democratic presidents, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, could not suppress a rebuttal.

“There must have been a hacking into his computer,” he said of Mr. McConnell, “because he can’t print the name Merrick Garland to include in the speech.”

Mr. Durbin later said that both Mr. McConnell and Judge Gorsuch would “enter the history books with asterisks by their names.”

And in a performative flourish of parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Schumer seized the floor to ask if any rules or precedents prohibited the Senate from “considering and voting on a nominee to the Supreme Court in the fourth year of the president’s term” — the oft-used justification for denying Judge Garland even a hearing.

“The chair is not aware of any such prohibition in its rules or precedents,” replied Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, who was presiding in the chamber at the time.

For Mr. McConnell, who could be seen doling out high-fives among lawmakers and aides after the votes, Thursday’s proceedings amounted to a gamble rewarded. Last year, Democrats had hoped to make Republicans pay at the ballot box for their treatment of Judge Garland. Instead, they will watch on Friday as a conservative jurist is confirmed for a lifetime appointment, with no power to filibuster nominees for future vacancies.

Judge Gorsuch will be taking the seat of one of the court’s most reliably conservative justices. A Trump-named replacement for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 84, Anthony M. Kennedy, 80, or Stephen Breyer, 78, would herald a significant ideological shift for the high court.

“They had a right to do what they did,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the body’s longest-serving Republican, said of the Democrats’ filibuster. “I just thought it was stupid.”

Other lawmakers sounded graver notes on Thursday, even as members of both parties dismissed any suggestion that a majority party might one day pursue more drastic remedies, like removing the filibuster on legislation.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said he was now serving an institution in “suffering,” with no clear direction as the parties lurched toward a deeper mutual resentment.

“Where we go from here, it’s hard to tell,” he said. “Will there be further erosions or not?”

He was asked if this might prove a turning point, a moment for doubling back. “We’re pretty early in this Congress,” he said. “So there’s plenty more time for more harm to be done.”

Despair was bipartisan.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she had strained over the last several days to broker an agreement to head off the filibuster and nuclear option.

By all accounts, the senators hoping for such a compromise did not come particularly close.

“There is such a profound lack of trust between the two parties,” said Ms. Collins, the rare Republican last year who supported holding a hearing and a vote on Judge Garland. “It’s hard to know whether the polarization in the Senate reflects the country or whether the polarization and divisiveness in the Senate affects the country.”

She paused for a beat, a few feet from Mr. McConnell’s office.

“Well, it clearly affects the country,” she said. “But which causes the other is at times hard to discern.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota was one of only a handful of Democrats who voted to end debate on Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation while her colleagues filibustered. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times



Senate Republicans Deploy ‘Nuclear Option’ to Clear Path for Gorsuch

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Thursday engineered a dramatic change in how the chamber confirms Supreme Court nominations, bypassing a Democratic blockade of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch in a move that will most likely reshape both the Senate and the court.

After Democrats held together Thursday morning and filibustered President Trump’s nominee, Republicans voted to lower the threshold for advancing Supreme Court nominations from 60 votes to a simple majority.

In deploying this so-called nuclear option, lawmakers are fundamentally altering the way the Senate handles one of its most significant duties, further limiting the minority’s power in a chamber that was designed to be a slower and more deliberative body than the House.

The move, once unthinkable among senators, is a testament to the creeping partisan rancor in recent years, after decades of at least relative bipartisanship on Supreme Court matters. Both parties have warned of sweeping effects on the court itself, predicting the elevation of more ideologically extreme judges now that only a majority is required for confirmation.

Senate Democrats in 2013 first changed the rules of the Senate to block Republican filibusters of presidential nominees to lower courts and to government positions. But they left the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees untouched, an acknowledgment of the court’s exalted status. On Thursday, that last pillar was swept away on a party-line vote, with all 52 Republicans choosing to overrule Senate precedent and all 48 Democrats and liberal-leaning independents pushing to keep it.

For weeks, the demise of the Supreme Court filibuster had seemed preordained — like a moldering stadium with a demolition date — even as members lamented the inevitability as a low moment for the Senate. In recent days, faint rumblings of a deal to avert the clash had faded almost entirely.

Democrats placed the blame squarely on Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and his Republican colleagues, who last year refused to even consider Judge Merrick B. Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died nearly 14 months ago.

“When history weighs what happened, the responsibility for changing the rules will fall on the Republicans’ and Leader McConnell’s shoulders,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, who had called for the withdrawal of the nomination if Judge Gorsuch could not earn 60 votes.

“They have had other choices,” he added. “They have chosen this one.”

Lawmakers first convened late Thursday morning to decide whether to advance the nomination. Republicans needed 60 votes — at least eight Democrats and independents joining the 52-seat majority — to end debate on the nomination and proceed to a final vote. Only a handful of Democrats defected, leaving Republicans to choose between allowing the president’s nominee to fail or bulldozing long-held Senate practice.

The final confirmation vote is set for Friday.

Republicans argued that changing the rules to push through the nomination was their only option, accusing Democrats of razing Senate norms with the first-ever successful partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. Allowing this obstruction to stand, Republicans said, would have caused more damage than overriding Senate precedent to turn back the filibuster.

“This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,” Mr. McConnell said, after describing Democratic opposition in the past to Judge Robert H. Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. “And it cannot and it will not stand. There cannot be two sets of standards: one for the nominees of the Democratic president and another for the nominees of Republican presidents.”

But Democrats had shown no signs of forsaking their filibuster plans all week. Their stance has pleased their most progressive voters, who have preached resistance to Mr. Trump at every opportunity.

Critics of Judge Gorsuch said they had identified ample reasons to oppose him, chafing at the suggestion that Democrats are merely seeking payback for Judge Garland. They cited concerns over Judge Gorsuch’s record on workers’ rights and wondered whether he could be reliably independent from Mr. Trump and conservative groups like the Federalist Society, which pushed his nomination.

But at times on Thursday, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that Judge Garland loomed largest in the minds of Democrats.

After Mr. McConnell suggested from the Senate floor that Republicans had given due deference in the past to Supreme Court nominees under Democratic presidents, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, could not suppress a rebuttal.

“There must have been a hacking into his computer,” he said of Mr. McConnell, “because he can’t print the name Merrick Garland to include in the speech.”

Mr. Durbin later said that both Mr. McConnell and Judge Gorsuch would “enter the history books with asterisks by their names.”

And in a performative flourish of parliamentary inquiry, Mr. Schumer seized the floor to ask if any rules or precedents prohibited the Senate from “considering and voting on a nominee to the Supreme Court in the fourth year of the president’s term” — the oft-used justification for denying Judge Garland even a hearing.

“The chair is not aware of any such prohibition in its rules or precedents,” replied Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, who was presiding in the chamber at the time.

For Mr. McConnell, who could be seen doling out high-fives among lawmakers and aides after the votes, Thursday’s proceedings amounted to a gamble rewarded. Last year, Democrats had hoped to make Republicans pay at the ballot box for their treatment of Judge Garland. Instead, they will watch on Friday as a conservative jurist is confirmed for a lifetime appointment, with no power to filibuster nominees for future vacancies.

Judge Gorsuch will be taking the seat of one of the court’s most reliably conservative justices. A Trump-named replacement for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 84, Anthony M. Kennedy, 80, or Stephen Breyer, 78, would herald a significant ideological shift for the high court.

“They had a right to do what they did,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the body’s longest-serving Republican, said of the Democrats’ filibuster. “I just thought it was stupid.”

Other lawmakers sounded graver notes on Thursday, even as members of both parties dismissed any suggestion that a majority party might one day pursue more drastic remedies, like removing the filibuster on legislation.

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, said he was now serving an institution in “suffering,” with no clear direction as the parties lurched toward a deeper mutual resentment.

“Where we go from here, it’s hard to tell,” he said. “Will there be further erosions or not?”

He was asked if this might prove a turning point, a moment for doubling back. “We’re pretty early in this Congress,” he said. “So there’s plenty more time for more harm to be done.”

Despair was bipartisan.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said she had strained over the last several days to broker an agreement to head off the filibuster and nuclear option.

By all accounts, the senators hoping for such a compromise did not come particularly close.

“There is such a profound lack of trust between the two parties,” said Ms. Collins, the rare Republican last year who supported holding a hearing and a vote on Judge Garland. “It’s hard to know whether the polarization in the Senate reflects the country or whether the polarization and divisiveness in the Senate affects the country.”

She paused for a beat, a few feet from Mr. McConnell’s office.

“Well, it clearly affects the country,” she said. “But which causes the other is at times hard to discern.”


Senate GOP triggers nuclear option to break Democratic filibuster on Gorsuch

Washington (CNN)The Senate Thursday triggered the so-called "nuclear option" that allowed Republicans to break a Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

The controversial changes to Senate rules, made along partisan lines, allows filibusters of Supreme Court picks to be broken with only 51 votes rather than 60.

The actions Thursday capped more than a year of tension over an empty Supreme Court seat, with both parties taking action that led to an outcome neither party wanted.

It was a situation loaded with nuance, procedural twists and Senate history -- not to mention a spot on the nation's highest court -- and a standoff that reflected a peak in polarization following a deeply divisive presidential election.

The move came after Democrats blocked the nomination under the previous 60-vote threshold. Only four Democrats -- Sens. Michael Bennet, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin -- crossed party lines to side with the Republicans.

Subsequent party-line votes allowed the GOP majority to change the precedent for Supreme Court nominees, leading up to the final vote breaking the filibuster.

After the final vote was gaveled, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went down his row and gave soft high fives to Majority Whip John Cornyn and two aides.

Later on the Senate floor, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut lambasted the high-fives, saying it was not a moment to celebrate. "It saddens me," he said. "No one should sleep well tonight."

McConnell called Gorsuch after the series of votes Thursday to let him know the outcome, according to an aide close to Gorsuch. Members of the White House confirmation team and several former law clerks for Gorsuch watched the vote from the Senate gallery.

What's next?
When Democrats held the majority, with Sen. Harry Reid as their leader, they used the nuclear option in 2013 to advance lower court and executive branch nominees, much to the disapproval of Republicans.

Now that Republicans are in the majority, they're citing that Democratic action as a precedent.

"Harry Reid decided that executive nominations will be done by simple majority, and we just simply went with the Harry Reid rule today," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. "I don't think this is any different from what he put forward."

Members of both parties acknowledged the risks of the change. It essentially allows the majority party to clear future Supreme Court nominees with ease, so presidents could appoint more ideological nominees that wouldn't require much, if any, bipartisan support.

Manchin described Thursday as a "very sad day," saying the Supreme Court won't have "have a check and balance" system in which the minority has input on future justices. He argued that senators will "rue the day that this happened."

"They all know what goes around comes around," Manchin told reporters. "I was just extremely sad."

Both sides blamed each other for the episode. Democrats blasted Republicans for using the workaround.

Republicans, meanwhile, said they felt they had no other option because of the Democratic filibuster.

"For the life of me, I don't understand why the Democrats made such a fuss about this (nominee)," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "They look stupid. The next one, I mean I expect Armageddon."

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was heavily involved in bipartisan conversations to find a way to avoid the nuclear option, but she said Wednesday they were simply unsuccessful.

"I've had midnight calls on this, 6:30 a.m. calls on this," she said. "Worked all weekend and we just couldn't get here."

Will the Senate become the House?
With the nuclear option in 2013 affecting executive branch nominees and the one used Thursday affecting the Supreme Court, many senators worry the next casualty to lose the 60-vote filibuster threshold is legislation.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, who was also part of bipartisan talks, said on the Senate floor Thursday that he has come to regret voting with his party for the nuclear option nearly four years ago. "And I anticipate that many of my colleagues will come to regret the decisions and actions taken today and tomorrow in this Congress and in Congresses ahead."

Collins said she's going to lead a letter and get signatures from other senators saying they will not support using the nuclear option on bills.

"I think that's the step in the right direction. It's going to take some time to heal," Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, said on the idea of a letter. "Clearly emotion is pretty raw in the United States Senate right now."

"We have to be an institution that functions with one another," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told reporters. "I do not want the Senate to be the House. It puts it on me and those who also work hard to be bipartisan to be even more bipartisan. So, I'm going to do that and I'm going to start today."

How did this all come about?
On January 31, Trump announced Gorsuch as his pick for the next Supreme Court justice, filling a seat vacated when Antonin Scalia passed away in early 2016.

Gorsuch's first call after being announced went to another judge named Merrick Garland, who'd been nominated by President Barack Obama after Scalia's death. But in the midst of a heated presidential election, Republicans refused to consider Garland's nomination and kept the seat empty until the next president was sworn in.

It was a risky move and Democrats were furious, but it ultimately paid off for Republicans when Trump won in a surprise victory last November.

Fast forward several months, Democrats were still steaming over what some have called a "stolen" Supreme Court seat and brought it up multiple times throughout Gorsuch's confirmation hearings and in Senate floor speeches.
On top of that, Democrats also took issue with Gorsuch's performance at his hearings, saying he was evasive in his answers, and they zeroed in on his decisions in a few cases, painting him as far-right and out-of-the-mainstream.

Republicans, on the other hand, argue Gorsuch answered more than 20 hours of questions and was abiding by what's known as the "Ginsburg standard" so as not to show his cards on how he'd rule in cases that may come before him.
Hitting back against the argument that he's extreme, Republicans say Gorsuch sided with the majority in 99% of his opinions as a federal judge in the past decade, and the GOP said that of the 2,700 cases he has ruled on, 97% were decided unanimously.

Republicans, in fact, felt that Trump picked a relatively safe nominee and rallied behind Gorsuch, even as Democrats signaled early on that they would filibuster his nomination.

0 Response to "Senate Republicans Deploy ‘Nuclear Option’ to Clear Path for Gorsuch"