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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. walks to his office on Capitol Hill Thursday. McConnell is expected to change Senate rules to guarantee confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Republicans are poised to lower the threshold for a vote on Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority, eliminating the ability of Democrats to keep Gorsuch off the high court. | J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Senate heads to Gorsuch confirmation vote Friday

SHARE Senate heads to Gorsuch confirmation vote Friday
SHARE Senate heads to Gorsuch confirmation vote Friday

WASHINGTON — The Senate has cleared the way for a Friday confirmation vote on President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 55-45 to successfully block Judge Neil Gorsuch, denying Republicans the 60 votes they needed to move forward. Republicans then voted to eliminate the 60-vote threshold, allowing them to proceed to the Friday vote with a simple majority.

The change is dubbed “the nuclear option” because it will make it easier for the majority to confirm its Supreme Court nominees in the future. Then-majority Democrats made a similar move in 2013 for lower court judges and executive branch nominees.

Under the new rules, the Senate voted 55-45 to move ahead on the nomination. After the standard 30 hours of debate, Gorsuch is expected to be confirmed.

The maneuvering played out with much hand-wringing from all sides about the future of the Senate, as well as unusually bitter accusations and counter-accusations as each side blamed the other for bringing the Senate to this point.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Democrats of forcing his hand by trying to filibuster a highly qualified nominee in Gorsuch, 49, a 10-year veteran of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver with a consistently conservative record. McConnell vowed that the rules change would block the Gorsuch filibuster, and all future ones, a change many lawmakers lamented could lead to an even more polarized Senate, court and country.

“This will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee,” McConnell insisted. “This is the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand.”

Supreme Court filibusters have been nearly unheard of in the Senate, but the confrontation is playing out amid an explosive political atmosphere with liberal Democrats furious over the Trump presidency and Republicans desperate to get a win after months of chaos from Trump.

And Democrats remain livid over McConnell’s decision last year to deny consideration to then-President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was ignored for nearly a year by Senate Republicans after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Instead, McConnell kept Scalia’s seat open, a calculation that is now paying off hugely for Republicans and Trump, who will be able to claim the biggest victory of his presidency to date if Gorsuch is confirmed as expected.

“We believe that what Republicans did to Merrick Garland was worse than a filibuster,” declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “We didn’t hear two words in the long speech of Senator McConnell: Merrick Garland.”

“The nuclear option means the end of a long history of consensus on Supreme Court nominations, it weakens the standing of the Senate as a whole,” Schumer said.

Emotions were running high ahead of the votes with raised voices on the floor where proceedings are normally sedate. All involved were keenly aware of the long-term implications of the proceedings, some of them hard to predict for the future of Trump’s presidency and the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans will be defending their slim 52-48 Senate majority and 10 vulnerable Democrats in states Trump won will be up for re-election.

Senators on both sides of the aisle lamented the trajectory they were on toward the Senate rules change, though they themselves were in position to prevent it

from happening and failed to do so.

Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said roughly 10 senators of both parties worked over the weekend to come up with a deal to stave off the so-called “nuclear option,” as the rules change is known, but couldn’t come to agreement. In 2005, a bipartisan deal headed off GOP plans to remove the filibuster barrier for lower-court nominees, but in 2013 Democrats took the step, leaving the filibuster in place only for Supreme Court justices.

And now, with political polarization at an extreme, the Senate is on the verge of killing off the Supreme Court filibuster, the one remaining vestige of bipartisanship on presidential appointments. For now the filibuster barrier on legislation will remain, though many fear it could be the next to go.

“I fear that someday we will regret what we are about to do. In fact, I am confident we will,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “It is imperative we have a functioning Senate where the rights of the minority are protected regardless of which party is in power at the time.”

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