Senate confirms Neil Gorsuch, Trump's Supreme Court nominee

President Trump’s nominee, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, was confirmed Friday for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, filling a 14-month vacancy after a dramatic Senate showdown that risked long-lasting repercussions to both institutions.

The confirmation delivers a much needed political victory to Trump, whose administration is struggling in its first 100 days to make progress on many campaign promises amid infighting in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

The Senate confirmed Gorsuch, 54-45, for the seat that had been open since the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Republican-led Senate had refused last year to consider President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, fueling partisan rancor and Democratic opposition to Gorsuch.

Only three Democrats joined Republicans in voting to confirm Gorsuch. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) all represent conservative-leaning red states that Trump won in the election. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who is recovering from surgery, was absent.

It was the narrowest approval of a Supreme Court nominee since the 52-48 confirmation of Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Vice President Mike Pence presided over the vote as Republicans sat in their seats and onlookers, including conservative legal activists, filled the visitor galleries. But Friday’s vote, arguably Trump’s most enduring achievement to date, was largely upstaged by the U.S. airstrikes in Syria.

The 49-year-old Gorsuch, who will be sworn in at the court on Monday, is a respected conservative who has worked for a decade on the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He is expected to bring a “textualist” approach to the court, relying on an exact reading of the law.

Trump called Gorsuch the "perfect choice" for the court. "Judge Gorsuch will serve the American people with distinction," the president said.

Since Gorsuch is replacing Scalia, a conservative icon, the ideological tilt of the bench is not likely to shift. He will restore a narrow conservative majority on issues such as campaign funding, religious liberty and support for gun ownership rights. The new justice is expected to join his conservative colleagues in upholding further restrictions on abortion.

“He’s going to make an incredible addition to the court,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “He’s going to make the American people proud.”

Democrats had staged a highly unusual filibuster to block the nominee. Only once before had the Senate successfully filibustered a president’s court pick. Republicans responded by changing long-standing Senate rules to allow filibusters of Supreme Court nominees to be broken with 51 votes rather than the previous 60.

Now Trump and future presidents will find it easier to choose Supreme Court nominees without needing much consent from the minority, opening the door to more ideologically extreme appointments.

"I believe it will make this body a more partisan place,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “And I believe it will make the Supreme Court a more partisan place.”

Gorsuch pledged in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee to be apolitical in his approach to the law. "There is no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge," he said.

But the senators of both parties made clear they do not agree with that assessment. Republicans were united in support of Gorsuch, believing President Trump’s nominee shares their views on the major issues before the court. The Democrats were nearly as united in opposing him, believing that he will make decisions that protect corporations over employees and consumers.

By some traditional measures, Gorsuch looked to be a high court nominee from central casting. He is a silver-haired father of two with an outstanding academic record. He earned degrees from Columbia University, Harvard Law School and Oxford University. He was a clerk at the Supreme Court for Justices Byron White, who was a fellow Colorado native, and for Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court’s current swing vote. He also served briefly as a Justice Department lawyer before being named to the 10th Circuit in 2006 by George W. Bush, a position for which he won unanimous Senate confirmation.

But Gorsuch was nominated in a particularly toxic environment, where Democrats were in no mood to cooperate with Trump or McConnell, who orchestrated the high-stakes strategy to block any nominee from Obama, saying the winner of the 2016 presidential election should make the appointment.

Senators made clear that repercussions from the battle over his confirmation may loom for some time.

Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said the new justice — like McConnell — “will enter the history books with asterisks by their names.”

The vote in many ways became a referendum on Trump’s new administration, as outside groups mobilized thousands of voters and millions of dollars to influence senators on both sides.

Pressure mounted for Republicans to produce a victory for a White House bruised by the embarrassing defeat of its healthcare overhaul and court battles over its travel ban.

Democrats also endured enormous pressure to resist the president’s pick from constituents eager to see the party confront Trump at every turn.

The outcome threatens to diminish the Senate’s long-standing ability to protect minority views by requiring a modicum of bipartisanship to reach the 60-vote hurdle for nominees, and it chips away at the chamber’s check on the executive branch.

Republicans blamed Democrats for opening the door in 2013, when former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) changed the rules to make it easier to break filibusters for executive branch and lower court nominees.

Some senators fear the filibuster will also one day be eliminated for legislation, further eroding ingrained practices that separate the Senate from the House, where a simple majority always rules.

For his part, Gorsuch is no stranger to Washington or its harsh political climate. His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was Ronald Reagan’s first director of the Environmental Protection Agency, but she was forced to step down after being caught up in a dispute over alleged political favoritism involving toxic waste cleanups.

But Gorsuch arrives at the high court with a special advantage. When he takes the “constitutional oath” in a private ceremony at the court on Monday morning, he’ll become the first former clerk to serve along with his former boss, Justice Kennedy. And later on Monday, he and Kennedy are expected to travel to the White House where he will take a separate “judicial oath.”

In history-making showdown, Senate GOP breaks Democratic filibuster of Trump's Supreme Court pick »

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

@LisaMascaro

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UPDATES:

2:10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background and analysis.

9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with additional background information and reaction.

8:50 a.m.: This article was updated with the vote to confirm Neil M. Gorsuch.

This article was originally published at 6:30 a.m.

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