WASHINGTON — Unable to secure the necessary 60 votes to stop a Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, Republicans moved Wednesday to change Senate rules to allow his confirmation with a simple majority vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled the change when he filed a motion for cloture, a first step to challenge a move to stonewall Gorsuch’s nomination by endless debate against it.
Cloture is the process for cutting off a filibuster. A longstanding Senate rule requires 60 votes to invoke it, but McConnell plans to change the rule to require only a majority vote to stop debate and confirm Gorsuch —a move popularly called the “nuclear option” because it is considered political nuclearwarfare.
It will be the first time the cloture standard has been tossed aside in debate over a Supreme Court justice. Three years ago, when the Democrats held the majority in the Senate, they changed the rule to overcome GOP resistance to President Barack Obama’s nomination of federal appellate and district court judges.
But there will be no Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” talkathon drama in the Gorsuch case. At least four Democrats — including West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly — who face re-election next year in states won by President Donald Trump say they will vote to support Gorsuch.
McConnell said he has enough votes to change the Senate rule even though a few Republicans have said they are reluctant to break with the Senate tradition. They declined Wednesday to say if theywill support ditchingthe 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees.
West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, for instance, said in an emailed statement she hopes it won’t come to that. A spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Issakson, R-Ga., said he hasn’t stated one way or the other how he plans to vote.
Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana said he will reluctantly vote for the rule change. He acknowledged in an interview that lowering the threshold for
Supreme Court justices will eventually “undermine support” for keeping the 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster on legislative bills.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he would “do whatever it takes to get Gorsuch on the Supreme Court,” but declined to say in a call with reporters if that means he would lower the historical threshold for approving Supreme Court justices from three-fifths to a simple majority.
Republicans know they will be slammed for a move Democrats can portray as a partisan power play. So they’d rather wait to say they acted only because Democrats forced their hand, said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute.
The senators are also happy to let leaders like McConnell,“carry the water and thus be the party’s public face in waging the war,” said Sarah Binder, senior fellow at The Brookings Institute and a George Washington University political science professor.
Grassley, in an interview with reporters Wednesday, put it another way.
“The reason we don’t like to answer that question (about cloture vote) is Judge Gorsuch is so highly qualified, we want to keep the focus on the substance of the candidate,” rather than the procedural change to get him approved.
Republicans say the onus should be on Democrats ganging up to block a nominee who would be easily confirmed if they weren’t angry over the GOP refusing to consider Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court 14 months ago, following the unexpected death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
Grassley predicted Gorsuch will get 57 or 58 votes on Friday for confirmation once the Senate removes the 60-vote threshold barrier.
Georgetown’s Huder said a more significant change to the filibuster rule occurred in 1890 in the U.S. House, when Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed eliminated the ability of the minority party to filibuster. He said that decision has resulted in House approval of partisan legislation without support from the opposition party.
Huber said the consequence of lowering the Senate filibuster vote rule will be confirmation of more “extremist” justices to the nation’s high court. Binder, of the Brookings Institute, agreed, saying the simple majority vote-threshold will free “presidents from both parties to appoint far out of the mainstream justices.”
Contact CNHI Washington reporter Kery Murakami at firstname.lastname@example.org.