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McConnell Goes Nuclear to Advance Gorsuch Nomination

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leaves the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill on April 6, 2017. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — In 2013, when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) dropped the nuclear option to push through a slate of stalled lower court Obama nominees, Republicans protested that the dramatic rules change would change the upper chamber forever.

Today, when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) detonated the nuclear option for confirmation of Supreme Court nominees, Democrats similarly cried foul.

“Wherever we place the starting point of this long, twilight battle over the judiciary, we are now at its end point,” declared Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on the Senate floor, stressing that Judge Neil Gorsuch didn’t earn enough Democratic support to pass the 60-vote cloture threshold because of his caucus’ “principled reasons” to deny President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

“I came here to the floor, each day, and made an offer to meet anywhere, anytime to discuss a new nominee. I hoped, perhaps naively, that we could discuss a way forward that both of our parties could live with. Unfortunately, there were no counteroffers or discussion offered by the other side — but our offer was meant sincerely,” Schumer said.

“Democrats and Republicans are caught in such a bunker mentality on this issue that we are just talking past each other. I know that many of my Republican friends are squeamish and uncomfortable with the path we are on, as we Democrats are as well. We’ve reached a point where the level of distrust is so high on this issue that we can’t even sit down and talk. My Republicans friends dismiss as out-of-hand the notion that Democrats will ever vote to confirm a Republican-nominated Judge, despite the fact that there were Democratic votes for both Justices Roberts and Alito to get them over 60, and despite our plangent attempts to convince them otherwise.”

Schumer called the 60-vote threshold on controversial issues “a hallmark of the Senate” and “the guardrail of our democracy” as well as a “guardrail against judicial extremism.”

“It will mean the end of any pressure on any future president to nominate someone in the mainstream,” he said. “When it comes to the courts, the guardrails are being dismantled.”

McConnell argued that Democrats’ opposition had nothing to do with Gorsuch and everything to do with the president making the nomination.

“It’s part of a much larger story, another extreme escalation in the left’s never-ending drive to politicize the courts and the confirmation process. It’s a fight they, and Democrats, have waged for decades with a singular aim: securing raw power, no matter the cost to country or institution,” he said on the floor. “It underlines why this threatened filibuster cannot be allowed to succeed or to continue: for the sake of the Senate, for the sake of the court, and for the sake our country.”

McConnell added that when he voted to confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, it was because he “respected the Senate’s tradition against filibustering Supreme Court nominees.”

“…No member of this Republican Conference, by the way, has ever voted to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. Ever.  Nobody on this side of the aisle has ever done that.”

The majority leader declared “this will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination.”

“All this history matters. I know the Democratic Leader would rather not revisit the circumstances that brought us to this moment. I know the Democratic Leader would rather not talk about it. Well, of course he doesn’t want to. He and his party decided to ‘change the ground rules’ for handling judicial nominations. He and his party pioneered the practice of filibustering lower court judicial nominees. He and his party launched the first partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. He and his party deployed the ‘nuclear option’ in 2013,” McConnell said.

He slammed “the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,” vowing “it cannot, and it will not, stand.”

“There cannot be two sets of standards, one for the nominees of Democratic presidents and another for the nominees of Republican presidents. The Democratic leader essentially claimed yesterday that Democratic presidents nominate justices who are near the mainstream, but Republican presidents nominate justices who are far outside the mainstream,” McConnell added. “In what universe?”

The first cloture vote on Gorsuch failed 55-45, with moderate Democrats Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) voting to advance his nomination. McConnell called for a re-vote, and the tally was the same: five votes shy of the threshold.

Schumer then moved to delay a vote until April 24, after the congressional Easter break, to allow time for negotiations on a consensus nominee. That failed on a party-line vote. He tried to adjourn the Senate until 5 p.m. That also didn’t pass.

After McConnell deployed the rules change, the vote to end debate on Gorsuch was 55-45, pushing the final vote on the Supreme Court nominee to Friday evening.

Manchin stressed that while he voted to advance Gorsuch, he was not happy with the nuclear option — he called it “taking another step toward destroying the Senate.”

“As I said when I voted against the Democrats’ nuclear option in 2013, I firmly believe that the filibuster is vital to protecting the minority’s views and exactly why the Framers of our Constitution made the Senate the ‘cooling saucer,'” the West Virginia Dem said in a statement.

“Republicans say it’s about obstructionism and Democrats say it’s a power grab. Their shifting positions and hypocrisy is the one thing that unites them: 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, and if it happens, both Democrats and Republicans will bear the shame,” Manchin added.