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Senate goes 'nuclear' to advance Trump's nominee for Supreme Court

The Senate was poised to confirm President Donald Trump's pick for the Supreme Court on Friday after the Republican majority approved a historic rules change that will make it easier for nominees to ascend to the high court.

Republicans and Democrats alike lamented the partisan maneuvering as the Senate nevertheless voted along party lines to trigger the so-called nuclear option, a parliamentary tactic that wiped out the decades-old 60-vote requirement to end filibusters on Supreme Court nominees.

The immediate result was that Neil M. Gorsuch, a Denver-based appellate judge who attended high school in Maryland, was set to win confirmation with a simple majority — handing Trump one of his first major victories as president. Gorsuch would take the seat left open by the death last year of Justice Antonin Scalia in time to hear the final cases of this term.

But there was bipartisan consternation about what the rules change means for the future of the court and the Senate. The latest eruption of political rancor will give Trump and future presidents who hold the Senate majority more freedom to promote ideological nominees.

The threat of a filibuster on such nominees had been viewed as a moderating influence on a president's pick for the lifetime appointment.

"This is a sad day in the Senate," said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who opposed Gorsuch. "I would hope that we will find our way to return to some level of comity in the Senate, as the course we are on is unsustainable and dangerous for our country."

Some Republicans expressed concern their party would ultimately regret blowing up the filibuster, but said the decision by Democrats to hold up a vote on a respected judge left them no choice.

The Democrats' filibuster was the first for a Supreme Court nominee since the Johnson administration.

"I fear today's action will irreparably damage the uniqueness of the Senate, and along with it, any hope of restoring meaningful bipartisanship," Sen. John McCain said in a statement.

Other Republicans blamed Democrats more directly, saying their dissent was really about denying Trump a win at any cost.

"The opposition to this particular nominee is more about the man that nominated him, and the party he represents, than the nominee himself," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor. "It underlines why this threatened filibuster cannot be allowed to succeed or to continue."

The Senate voted 52-48 to change the rules, clearing the way for a final vote on Gorsuch on Friday. In a rare display that underscored the long-term implications of the move, most senators remained in their seats as the leaders engaged in a choreography of procedural motions and votes whose outcome had been predicted weeks ago.

Democrats, who ramped up their criticism of Gorsuch in recent weeks amid growing fury from the party's left wing, described him as a radical ally of moneyed and corporate interests.

They criticized the GOP for refusing to hold a vote on Merrick Garland, the judge President Barack Obama nominated for the seat more than a year ago. That decision, many Democrats said, amounted to a de facto filibuster of an equally respected nominee.

Republicans describe Gorsuch as an accomplished judge whose opinions have rarely been overturned by the Supreme Court. They noted that Trump included Gorsuch on a list of possible candidates for the Supreme Court ahead of last year's presidential election.

Not only was his nomination not a surprise, they said, but it fufilled a campaign promise.

Conservative voters rallied behind Trump's campaign last year in part because of the open seat on the Supreme Court.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Gorsuch could be sworn in early next week.

Gorsuch, a Denver native who graduated from Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda in 1985, is considered an "originalist" who emphasizes what he believes was the original meaning of the Constitution and prioritizes the words of the law over the intent of lawmakers who wrote them.

While Democrats decried the assault on the filibuster, Republicans pointed out that they had triggered the same change for nominees to lesser roles in 2013.

Frustrated with GOP efforts to block President Barack Obama's nominees, then-Democratic Leader Harry Reid embraced the nuclear option for other presidential appointments, such as for lower federal courts. At the time, Democrats exempted Supreme Court nominees from the rule change in recognition of the significance of the job.

Reid and other Democratic leaders later said they regretted the rules change. The lack of a 60-vote threshold to end debate on nominees gave Democrats little to no leverage to stop any of Trump's cabinet picks this year.

Filibusters of Supreme Court nominees are rare. The Senate blocked President Lyndon Johnson's attempt to elevate Justice Abe Fortas to the position of chief justice in 1968. Senate Democrats attempted to filibuster Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in 2006 but were unsuccessful.

Members of both parties are now warily eying the possibility of a similar fate for the filibuster on legislation. In most cases, the 60-vote threshold to move controversial bills through the Senate gives the minority party has a check on the president's legislative agenda.

But the same "nuclear" procedure used Thursday for Gorsuch could be employed for legislation.

McConnell has vowed not to pursue that option, but it is not difficult to envision a scenario where Republicans will at least be pressured to do so.

"Instead of rising to the challenge and upholding the rules designed to forge bipartisan compromise, Republicans have engaged in a crass power play," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who opposed Gorsuch. "I can only hope that they don't further dismantle Senate procedure to end the protections that force consensus around legislative issues."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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