Senate GOP Invokes ‘Nuclear Option,’ Gorsuch Vote Slated for Friday

WASHINGTON (CN) – Senate Republicans on Thursday advanced 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a move that required them to change longstanding chamber rules to overcome a Democratic filibuster.

The saga began Thursday morning when Democrats held strong on their promise to filibuster President Donald Trump’s nominee to the nation’s highest court by a 55-45 procedural vote.

In addition to 51 Republicans, Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Manchin voted to limit debate on the nomination, a motion known as cloture that requires 60 votes to pass.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voted against the cloture motion so he could bring the motion up for a vote again. McConnell did this immediately after the first vote failed, but the second attempt ended with the same tally as the first.

After Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., raised two procedural votes and a series of questions to the chair of the Senate meant to criticize Republicans’ handling of the nomination, McConnell invoked the so-called “nuclear option,” asking to reinterpret the rules of the Senate to mean that only a simple majority vote is necessary to invoke cloture for Supreme Court nominees.

The request specifically asked to overturn a ruling of the Senate that held 60 votes was still required to end a filibuster on a Supreme Court nominee and to apply to the high court a rules change Democrats made in 2013 to overcome a Republican blockade against President Barack Obama’s picks for lower courts.

Republicans succeeded in overturning that ruling 52-48 and then invoked cloture on Gorsuch’s nomination by a 55-45 vote. That sets up a vote to confirm Gorsuch Friday evening, though the vote could happen earlier if Democrats agree to sacrifice some of the time required between a cloture vote and final confirmation.

The votes that took place on Thursday were all but inevitable after Democrats promised to filibuster Gorsuch as his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee drew to a close. It became clear they had the votes to sustain the filibuster earlier this week and that Republicans would be able to push forward with a rules change shortly after.

All that remained was finger pointing among senators seeking to place blame on the rules change on their opposition. Republicans have claimed the filibuster was an attempt from Democrats to fight Trump at all costs and that the rules change was necessary because Democrats would never support a Trump nominee.

“This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and it will not stand,” McConnell said on the Senate floor shortly before the vote. “There cannot be two sets of standards, one for nominees of Democratic presidents and another for the nominees of Republican presidents.”

But Democrats were insistent that Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings on D.C. Circuit Chief Justice Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, forced their hand on the filibuster.

“My reaction is that all of this really started last year with the decision that was made to, without precedent, deny the president an appointment in his final year,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters after Thursday’s vote.

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