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Senate Forces Historic Rules Change, Poised to Confirm Gorsuch

  • Michael Bowman

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky signals a thumbs-up as he leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 6, 2017, after he led the GOP majority to change Senate rules and lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority in order to advance Neil Gorsuch to a confirmation vote.

The U.S. Senate is poised to confirm President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick after Republicans forced a historic change in the rules governing the chamber, ending the minority party's ability to block high court nominees.

A united Republican caucus, joined by three Democrats, voted Thursday to advance federal appellate judge Neil Gorsuch's nomination to a final vote, expected Friday.

Moments earlier, days of finger-pointing and furious rhetoric came to a momentous climax. Republicans used their majority to exercise the "nuclear option," altering Senate rules to defeat a Democratic procedural blockade of the nominee, known as a filibuster.

While lamenting the need for a rules change, Republicans said they had no choice but to act.

FILE - Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 22, 2017, as he testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
FILE - Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 22, 2017, as he testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this unprecedented partisan filibuster," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

"We have actually restored the status quo," said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, noting that filibusters of Supreme Court nominees were almost unheard of prior to Trump's selection.

Blame game

Democrats had a different take on the day's events.

Watch: Senate Poised to Confirm Gorsuch After Historic Rules Change

"When history weighs what happened, the responsibility for changing the rules will fall on the Republicans' and Leader McConnell's shoulders," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. "No one forced them to act. They acted with free will."

"I am sick with regret," said Democratic Chris Coons of Delaware. "Where are we headed? If we cannot trust each other, then are there any big problems facing this country which we can address and solve?"

Republicans said Democrats had no one to blame but themselves, launching a filibuster they knew Republicans were determined to overcome.

"You [Democrats] are stuck," said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, ahead of the rules change. "You've got to press forward, don't you, even though you know the effort is doomed to fail. You know that he [Gorsuch] will be confirmed, and you know in your heart that he deserves to be confirmed."

Democrats countered that the filibuster of Gorsuch, after a thorough confirmation hearing, paled in comparison to Republicans refusing to even consider former President Barack Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

"[Republicans] made history in denying a presidential nominee a hearing and a vote, which had never, never happened before in the history of the United States," said Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois. "The nuclear option was used by Senator McConnell when he stopped Merrick Garland."

Long-term impact

The rules change all but assures Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court, filling the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last year. Senators of both parties wondered out loud about the long-term impact of eroding minority party rights in a chamber that historically has protected them.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 6, 2017, as Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to change Senate rules to guarantee confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 6, 2017, as Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is expected to change Senate rules to guarantee confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

"It [the rules change] weakens the standing of the Senate as a whole, as a check on the president's ability to shape the judiciary," Schumer said. "In a post-nuclear world, if the Senate and the presidency are in the hands of the same party, there is no incentive to even speak to the Senate minority. That's a recipe for more conflict and bad blood between the parties, not less."

Some attempted to strike a conciliatory note.

"We do need to open all our minds and hearts in the days ahead, regardless of our party and not withstanding our partisanship," said Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia.

"Everyone likes to point the finger at the other side," Coons said. "The reality is, there is abundant blame to go around.

"How can we avoid the deepening, corrosive partisanship in this body? What past mistakes can each of us own up to? What steps can we take to mend these old wounds, and what more can we do to move forward together?" Coons added.

Democrats themselves changed the rules to eliminate the filibuster for all non-Supreme Court nominees when they controlled the chamber in 2013. The procedural tactic still exists for most legislation; but, with the Senate already acting twice in a four-year span to weaken the filibuster, political analysts expect pressure will mount to curb it even further in years to come.

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