Senate goes ‘nuclear’ as GOP changes rules, clears path for Trump Supreme Court pick

Republicans triggered the “nuclear option” Thursday, changing the filibuster rules and paving the way for Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s first Supreme Court pick, to be approved later this week.

After weeks of threatening, Democrats mounted the first successful partisan filibuster of a high court nominee in U.S. history, and Republicans — following a script Democrats pioneered four years ago — retaliated by changing the rules and eliminating the power of the filibuster to hold up any nominees.

“This will be the first — and last — partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed, saying he didn’t relish changing the rules but argued Democrats forced him into it.

The fallout from Thursday’s vote also threatens to poison the Senate for the foreseeable future, worsening already abysmal relations between Republicans and Democrats who have feuded over every step of Mr. Trump’s agenda.

 But Republicans said Judge Gorsuch, who has won rave reviews from both liberal and conservative legal scholars, was worthy of the fight.

His final confirmation, expected Friday afternoon, will give Mr. Trump an early win on a key campaign promise.

Democrats put up fierce resistance, both to Judge Gorsuch and to the nuclear vote.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who pioneered the nuclear option when fellow Democrats changed the filibuster rules for other nominees in 2013, said the GOP would be blamed for this final step.

“When history weighs what happened, the responsibility for changing the rules will fall on the Republicans and Leader McConnell’s shoulders,” he said. “No one forced them to act; they acted with free will. We offered them alternatives; they refused.”

Democrats have offered a list of reasons for opposing Judge Gorsuch. Some say Mr. Trump is too tainted a president to make the pick, while others are still steaming over the GOP’s blockade last year of Judge Merrick Garland, whom President Obama tapped for the same seat but who was denied a hearing, much less a vote.

As for Judge Gorsuch himself, Democrats say they fear he would overturn some precedents, such as the 1973 Roe decision establishing a national constitutional right to an abortion, but wouldn’t overturn others, such as the 2010 decision granting First Amendment free speech rights during political campaigns to interest groups, labor unions and corporations.

“The more we learned about Judge Gorsuch’s record, the more we didn’t like,” Mr. Schumer said.

Thursday’s rules change doesn’t end the filibuster, and senators will still be able to use it to drag out action. But a majority will be able to overcome filibusters with their numbers alone.

Once Judge Gorsuch is sworn in, the court will again have nine justices: Five appointed by Republican presidents and four appointed by Democrats.

Judge Gorsuch will fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s more conservative-leaning justices, so even if Mr. Schumer’s predictions about Judge Gorsuch come true, it’s not likely to shift the balance from where it has been for the last decade.

The bigger change could come with the next vacancy, which court-watchers say is likely among the liberal justices, giving Mr. Trump a chance to shape the court by picking a conservative. Democrats will have already ceded the ability to filibuster.

“For the life of me I don’t understand why the Democrats made such a fuss about this one,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. “I expect Armageddon on the next one.”

Just four Democrats joined Republicans on the first filibuster vote, leaving the GOP four votes shy of the 60 needed under the old interpretation of the rules.

None of those Democrats supported the rules change, however.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who supposed Judge Gorsuch, bucked his party on the nuclear option in 2013, and defied Republicans on the same vote this year, saying he was disappointed in all sides.

“Their shifting positions and hypocrisy is the one thing that unites them,” he said. “Both times, it was simply about doing what was politically easy instead of doing the hard work of consensus building. This is precisely what is wrong with Washington.”

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