The nomination of Neil Gorsuch to be on the Supreme Court is headed for a showdown later this week.
The results will have a lasting impact on Washington and could change the Senate forever
The Senate isn’t a place that changes much. Which is why what is almost certain to happen later this week matters so much.
Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court will, barring some sort of cataclysm, make it the Senate floor later this week. Democrats seem poised to block a vote that would end debate and allow him a simple majority vote. (Just three Democratic Senators have announced they will support Gorsuch, well short of the eight Democrats that Republicans need to reach the 60 vote cloture mark.)
If – more like when – that blockade happens, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appears set to force a rule change known as the “nuclear option.” What McConnell’s move would do is simple: Allow Senate debate on Supreme Court nominees to be ended with a simple majority vote, meaning that, to put a fine point on it, the majority rules. Period.
“We’re going to get Judge Gorsuch confirmed this week, McConnell promised during an interview with “Fox News Sunday.” Asked about using the nuclear option, McConnell put it all on Democrats: “We’ll know through the course of the week. It’s in the hands of Democrats.”
The slippery slope to the elimination of the need to win 60 votes to end debate on Supreme Court nominees began back in 2013 when then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the filibuster rules on all federal court nominees – citing the unprecedented opposition of Republicans as the catalyst.
At the time, many neutral observers – as well as a lot of Democrats – worried that Reid had opened Pandora’s box. After all, the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule was regarded as one of the most sacred elements of the world’s greatest deliberative body. The nuclear option had been thwarted countless times in the past thanks to a bipartisan group of institutionalist Senators who viewed comity and tradition as more important than any one confirmation fight.
“I argued against it at the time,” Schumer said in January of the Reid rule change. “I said both for Supreme Court and in Cabinet should be 60 because on such important positions there should be some degree of bipartisanship.”
Assuming McConnell triggers the nuclear option on the Gorsuch nomination – and there’s absolutely every reason to believe he will – that long-standing tradition will be gone. And it will be a telling indicator of just how partisan all of our politics have become.
Triggering the nuclear option on Gorsuch will further poison a well that already holds water no one would want to drink. While the nuclear option will not apply to all legislation – sweeping reform of the health insurance industry or the tax code, for example, would still need 60 votes to end debate in the Senate – it will make make such compromise that much more difficult to achieve.
Gone – or at least badly damaged – will be the idea that the Senate is fundamentally different in its operations than the House. The upper chamber, like its House brother, will be a place where majority makes might – and where the idea of reaching across the aisle is essentially a non-starter.
That’s likely to suit the bases of both parties perfectly fine. Each has preferred confrontation to compromise for a very long time now.
The problem, of course, is that the Senate was envisioned by our founders as being a different sort of institution than the House, one less subject to the partisan winds and, therefore, more able to act as a sort of check on the actions of the lower chamber.
A major part of that vision will die if and when McConnell invokes the nuclear option later this week. The Senate won’t be the same Senate anymore.