WASHINGTON — The so-called “nuclear option” barring Senate filibusters appears likely as both Democratic leadership and President Trump drew firm lines on the Supreme Court nomination of federal Judge Neil Gorsuch — a development experts say is inevitable in an age of sharpening partisan divisions.
“If you can, Mitch, go nuclear,” Trump said during remarks at the White House, pressing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make the rule change that would allow GOP lawmakers, who hold 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, to confirm Gorsuch with a simple majority vote.
That move, last exercised by then-Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid to protect former President Barack Obama’s appointments, would thwart Democratic plans to use parliamentary procedure to invoke cloture and require 60 Senate votes to allow Gorsuch’s nomination to proceed. Many Democrats, including Bay State U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, have vowed to oppose Gorsuch, dimming the prospect of Trump’s pick garnering the needed 60 votes.
Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York promised a filibuster on the Senate floor yesterday.
“There will be 60 votes for confirmation,” Schumer said. “Any one member can require it, many Democrats already have and it is the right thing to do. On a subject as important as a Supreme Court nomination, bipartisan support should be a prerequisite. It should be essential. That’s what 60 votes does.”
McConnell has yet to say whether he will seek the rule change.
“I hope and expect that all Senate colleagues will give him fair consideration just as we did for the nominees of newly elected presidents Clinton and Obama,” McConnell said.
The 60-vote Senate rule was designed to encourage the selection of consensus candidates that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle could support. But civil rights leaders and other advocates who object to Gorsuch’s conservative views and who are still seething over Republicans’ block of Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland last year have pressed Democrats to block him.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) said he’d rather press for a hearing and a vote on the nominee. Other Democrats said during a private retreat that they’d prefer to save the filibuster in case another vacancy on the court opens, according to a CNN report.
But with a growing partisan divide in Washington, the “nuclear” rule change — either now or later — is inevitable.
“For the Democrats, it’s really coming down to whether they want the make a stand right now or keep a threshold for confirmation of Supreme Court nominations that is not likely to survive another one or two nominations anyway,” said Steven S. Smith, expert on congressional politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
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