WASHINGTON — Republican Senators resorted to the “nuclear option” Thursday on federal Judge Neil M. Gorsuch’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination after Democrats filibustered President Donald Trump’s pick.
The nuclear option changes Senate rules to lower the votes needed for confirmation to a simple majority of 51.
In the bitter, partisan clash over Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Democrats’ move marked only the second time a Supreme Court nominee has been successfully filibustered.
Senators voted 55-45 against Gorsuch, leaving the nomination five votes shy of the 60 needed to end debate and move to confirmation.
A final confirmation vote is scheduled for Friday, with all 52 Republicans along with three Democrats, expected to vote for Gorsuch.
Senate Democrats, echoing other observers, warned that changing the rules would make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations much more partisan.
“The consequences for the Senate and for the future of the Supreme Court will be far-reaching,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said before the vote. “The cooling saucer of the Senate will get considerably hotter.”
Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) said the rules change “makes it less likely you’re going to have centrist, moderate nominees on the Supreme Court.”
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held four days of hearings on Gorsuch, slammed Democrats for “desperately searching for justification for their pre-planned filibuster.”
Schumer said Gorsuch “may very well turn out to be one of the most conservative judges on the bench.”
But Grassley responded, “What exactly is so objectionable about this nominee?”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Gorsuch eminently qualified, rejecting Democrats insistence that Trump choose another Supreme Court nominee.
“This will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee,” McConnell said. “This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand.”
Democrats employed the nuclear option in 2013 for cabinet nominees but had left the filibuster intact for Supreme Court nominees.
Senate Democrats are still bristling over Republicans’ refusal to consider Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia.
Gorsuch, seen by conservatives as a jurist very much in the mold of Scalia, had been vetted, along with other potential nominees Trump had considered, by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.
During the Judiciary Committee hearings, several Democrats questioned Gorsuch’s commitment to abortion rights, workers’ rights, environmental protection and gun control, and asserted he had favored corporations.
Gorsuch repeatedly spoke of the importance of an independent judiciary during the hearings.
When Graham asked Gorsuch if Trump had ever asked the judge to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide, Gorsuch replied, “Senator, I would have walked out the door.”
While Gorsuch’s nomination would tilt the court’s ideological balance to 5-4 in some cases, it’s noteworthy that he clerked Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has sided with liberals in gay rights, abortion rights and race cases.