Senate girds for battle over Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch
Game of political chicken set to start today in the Senate, with Democrats likely to block Judge Neil Gorsuch’s appointment and force ‘nuclear’ option
Senate Democrats are mounting a filibuster of US President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, a rare obstruction of high court appointments. If the gambit proves successful this coming week, Republicans will likely go nuclear.
The Senate faces an epic showdown beginning today over whether to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch. It is a very public game of political chicken that could shape the make-up of the Supreme Court for years to come, and unravel any remaining pretence of bipartisanship in the upper chamber of Congress.
Should Democrats block Gorsuch, Trump’s Republicans are threatening to respond by altering long-standing Senate rules and bypassing the 60-vote threshold to advance nominees in the 100-member chamber.
Such a manoeuvre is known as the nuclear option. And its results could be hugely consequential, on both sides of the political aisle.
“It churns our stomach,” Senator Mike Rounds told reporters when asked about whether fellow
Republicans were really prepared to change the rules. “Once they let the genie out, it’s not going back in, unfortunately.”
All Senate confirmations – for cabinet posts, to judgeships on a federal bench, to Supreme Court picks – technically require a simple majority vote of 51 senators.
That would not be difficult for Republicans today, given that they control 52 seats. Bumping the threshold up to 60 for a Supreme Court pick has only occurred four times in modern history. Never has a filibuster derailed a Supreme Court nominee.
“This would make history in a very bad way,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said.
Republicans would not be the first to go nuclear. Democrat Harry Reid unlocked the process in 2013 when he was Senate majority leader, changing the rules to lower the magic number from 60 to 51 on all presidential nominees – except Supreme Court justices.
Republicans will need eight Democrats to break the filibuster and get Gorsuch onto the bench, which has been one justice short since conservative Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.
That will be a tall order, especially given the volcanic anger many Democrats still feel over the treatment of Merrick Garland, then-president Barack Obama’s pick to replace Scalia.
While Republicans blast Democrats’ “unprecedented obstructionism” of Gorsuch, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell let Garland languish for eight months without a vote. When Trump won the election, it killed Garland’s nomination.
Just two Democrats – Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, both from states that backed Trump – have announced support for Gorsuch. At least 36 have said they will join the filibuster, according to US media counts. If they reach 41, Gorsuch is blocked.
But Republican leadership has signalled its readiness to change the rules if need be, a potentially toxic move.
“The United States Senate will confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch, one way or the other,” Vice-President Mike Pence said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said it was “complete hokum” for Republicans to portray the options as either confirm Gorsuch or exercise the nuclear option: “You don’t need to change the rules if Judge Gorsuch doesn’t get 60 votes. You just need to change the nominee.”