Senate begins closing Gorsuch debate, amid partisan standoff over nominee

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The Senate began closing debates Tuesday on President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch, in a standoff that could end with Republicans changing voting procedures to confirm Gorsuch over Democrats’ objections.

Democrats technically have enough votes in the GOP-controlled chamber to block the appellate judge’s confirmation through a filibuster.

The situation has Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ready to make a unilateral, procedural change so that Gorsuch can be pushed to confirmation with a simple majority of 51 votes, not the 60 votes currently needed in the 100-member chamber. This is known as the “nuclear option.” 

McConnell has vowed to have the 49-year-old Gorsuch confirmed by Friday but says he continues to hope Democrats drop their filibuster attempt.

“It should be unsettling to everyone that our colleagues across the aisle have brought the Senate to this new low,” the Kentucky Republican said Tuesday, at the start of floor debates. “Judge Gorsuch is independent, fair and has one of the most impressive resumes you will ever see.”

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, followed on the floor by continuing to rail against Republicans for not allowing confirmation hearings last year for Merrick Garland, then-President Barack Obama’s high court pick.

“Merrick Garland — the only presidential nomination to the Supreme Court, in the history of the United States Senate, to be denied a hearing and a vote,” Durbin said.

After hours of debate Monday, the Judiciary Committee voted 11-9, along party lines, to send Gorsuch’s nomination to the full Senate.

If confirmed, Gorsuch would take the seat of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016, and maintain conservatives’ 5-4 majority in the high court.

Sen. Chris Coons, of Delaware, on Monday became the key 41st senator to oppose Gorsuch, helping give Democrats enough votes to secure a filibuster.

He declared during the committee meeting that Gorsuch’s conservative record showed an activist approach to the law, often in favor of business interests, and that he evaded questions during his confirmation hearings.

The long-term consequences of the coming confrontation could be profound, as the rules change Republicans intend to enact would apply to future Supreme Court nominees as well, allowing them to be voted onto the court without any input from the minority party.

And though predicting a justice’s votes can be difficult, confirmation of Gorsuch is expected to restore the conservative majority that existed while Scalia was alive.

Gorsuch has spent more than a decade on the federal appeals bench in Denver where he’s issued consistently conservative rulings, and he appeared on Trump’s list of potential candidates partly generated by the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation during the campaign.

The showdown over the “nuclear option,” expected on the Senate floor Thursday, is likely to be accompanied by much hand-wringing from senators bemoaning the decay of the chamber’s traditions of bipartisanship and comity.

But both parties are to blame. When the Democrats were in the majority, they removed the 60-vote threshold for nominees to federal benches lower in the judicial system than the Supreme Court. This change came in 2013 as Republicans, who were in the minority at the time, were blocking Obama picks for critical court vacancies. Republicans said at the time that Democrats would come to regret the move.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.