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

A somber, deeply divided Senate tossed aside some of its surviving remnants of bipartisanship Thursday as Democrats filibustered President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and Republicans overcame the tactic by voting to scrap long-standing rules.

The history-making turn of events put Judge Neil M. Gorsuch on track for easy confirmation to the lifetime appointment in a vote slated for Friday, but threatened to deepen dissension and gridlock in the once-lofty chamber.

It marked only the second time in history that a president’s Supreme Court nomination had been blocked by a filibuster.

Republicans’ reaction — to break with Senate tradition by allowing a high court filibuster to be broken with a simple majority rather than 60 votes — was considered such an extreme measure it had been dubbed the “nuclear option.”

President Trump praised the Senate’s move to advance his nominee.

“We have a great person right now in Judge Gorsuch,” Trump said Thursday while traveling on Air Force One to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

But earlier in the day, tensions were high and the mood grim as senators quietly took their seats to consider the nomination of the conservative judge from Colorado’s 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Both sides were mindful that their actions would have long-lasting ramifications for the Senate, diminishing built-in protections for minority viewpoints that have enabled the chamber to provide a check on the executive branch and the often-impetuous House.

“The 60-vote bar in the Senate is the guardrail of our democracy,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a floor speech. “I am disheartened that we are here.... And I worry a great deal about what that means for the future.”

While leaders emphasized that 60 votes are still needed to overcome filibusters of legislation, senators fear that rule may also be in peril amid growing partisanship.

The new 51-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees will make it easier for Trump, and future presidents, to nominate and confirm more ideologically extreme justices, rather than search for those who might have the bipartisan appeal needed to garner 60 votes.

Republicans defended their decision to abandon the 60-vote threshold, saying they had repeatedly warned Democrats not to mount a partisan campaign against Gorsuch. They also noted that Democrats opened the door themselves in 2013 when they voted to abandon the 60-vote rule for other types of judicial and executive branch nominees.

GOP leaders called Gorsuch a highly qualified jurist who was being opposed because Democrats saw him as too conservative or wanted to confront Trump.

“I’ve seen the Senate broken before and we always come back,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). “Hopefully this won’t cause too much consternation, but it really became very partisan — and it really irritated the daylights out of me.”

The showdown had been escalating ever since Trump nominated Gorsuch to fill the seat made vacant by the death last year of Justice Antonin Scalia. Many Republicans viewed Gorsuch, 49, as a worthy replacement for the conservative icon.

But while Gorsuch won a few positive endorsements from both sides of the aisle, many Democrats voiced concerns about his past conservative rulings and reluctance to answer questions during his confirmation hearings.

Democrats also fumed that Republicans had refused last year to consider President Obama’s choice to replace Scalia, Judge Merrick Garland, leaving the seat vacant for more than year.

Even so, filibusters of Supreme Court nominees are rare. When President Lyndon B. Johnson tried to elevate Justice Abe Fortas to the position of chief justice, senators from both parties filibustered in part over an ethics scandal that eventually led Fortas to resign.

In 2006, Democrats, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, tried to filibuster Samuel A. Alito Jr., but the effort fizzled and Alito was confirmed.

On Thursday, when Republicans first tried to end the Democratic filibuster, the vote was 55 to 45, short of the 60 votes needed. Four red- or swing-state Democrats joined Republicans — Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia.

An hour later, Republicans used their majority to muscle through a rule change on a party-line vote, lowering the threshold to 51. Then they easily broke the filibuster, 55 to 45, this time with just three Democrats — Donnelly, Heitkamp and Manchin.

Brushing aside his own unprecedented blockade of Obama’s nominee last year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blamed Democrats’ “never-ending drive to politicize the courts and the confirmation process.”

But as the votes unfolded, senators from both parties expressed regret.

“This is a dark day in the Senate,” tweeted Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

As many as 10 senators had been meeting quietly to strike a compromise to avert the filibuster and the rule change. In return for agreeing to allow Gorsuch’s nomination to proceed, Democrats wanted assurances that Republicans would not deploy the nuclear option to confirm Trump’s next high court nominee, thereby securing some of the Democrats’ leverage in the next confirmation battle.

But talks ultimately failed.

“It grieves me to think that we have so lost the history of trusting each other and knowing each other, that it was unworkable to get a reliable, trustworthy bipartisan deal, even with goodwill, even with hard work,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) who led efforts to compromise.

Many now worry that it is only a matter of time before the rules are changed again to allow a simple majority to pass legislation, making the Senate, an institution designed as a deliberative body that requires bipartisan cooperation, operate more like the majority-rules House.

“If senators are going to address the problems facing the nation and the world, we are going to first have to address the problems facing the United States Senate,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “I hope that all of us will reflect upon this profoundly sad day for this greatest of American institutions to consider where we are right now, and what we can do to begin anew.”

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com | @LisaMascaro

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UPDATES:

3:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background and analysis.

9:30 a.m.: This article was updated with the Senate voting to changes its rules.

8:20 a.m.: This article was updated with the Senate vote failing to end the filibuster.

This article was originally published at 4:10 a.m.

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