WASHINGTON - A U.S. Senate panel on Monday approved President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, setting up a contentious fight in the full Senate over the conservative jurist's lifetime appointment.
Opposition Democrats say they now have enough votes to block his confirmation under the chamber's normal rules of operation; however, the majority Republican bloc says it will change the rules and then approve the 49-year-old judge on a simple majority vote.
Democratic opposition to Gorsuch mounted Monday, but Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared his nomination on an 11-9 party-line vote, sending it to the full Senate for consideration later in the week.
Democrats said they count 41 votes against confirming Gorsuch, enough to keep Republicans from routinely approving his nomination in the 100-member Senate, where major legislation and Supreme Court nominations typically require a 60-vote super majority for approval.
However, the Democratic victory may prove short-lived. Republicans, with a 52-48 margin in the Senate, say they will unilaterally revise the chamber's voting rules to allow them to approve Gorsuch's appointment on a simple majority vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is vowing that one way or another, Gorsuch will be confirmed in the coming days to fill the ninth seat on the Supreme Court left vacant by the death more than a year ago of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart on the court for three decades.
Three Democrats have joined all 52 Republicans in supporting the Gorsuch nomination. But Senate consideration of the nomination is setting the stage for a bruising partisan battle that could alter how the chamber operates and further erode already fractious relations between Democratic and Republican lawmakers.
Four more Democratic senators — Dianne Feinstein, Mark Warner, Patrick Leahy and Chris Coons — announced their opposition to Gorsuch on Monday, setting up the confrontation with Republicans. Democrats have said they will use a procedure called a filibuster that requires the 60-vote majority for Gorsuch to win approval.
Republicans are incensed at the Democratic plan, arguing filibusters of Supreme Court justices are rare. A partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee has never succeeded.
Some Democrats have charged Republicans with stealing a Supreme Court seat last year when the Republican-majority Senate refused to consider U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee, appellate judge Merrick Garland, to replace Scalia, who died in February 2016. When Donald Trump won the presidency, he nominated Gorsuch to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer has warned Republicans against changing the rules so that only a simple majority is required. Such a rule change could allow all future Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed regardless of opposition from the minority party.
"You shouldn't change the rules," Schumer said. "You should change the nominee."
Michael Bowman contributed to this report.