The Republican base has long cared deeply about the makeup of the highest court in the country
For most Democrats, there is more political risk in voting for the Gorsuch nomination to proceed than blocking it
The Senate is on a collision course. Sometime in the next 48 to 72 hours, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, will move to change the rules in order to allow a simple majority vote to end debate on the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, who will be confirmed soon after.
The use of the “nuclear option” – first employed by then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2013 with regards to Cabinet appointees and federal judges – is a break from the long-standing traditions of how the Senate operates. The Senate, a body that has viewed itself as above the majority-rule nature of the House, is on a very slippery slope toward becoming its little brother chamber.
That’s a bad thing, broadly speaking, for democracy. But this latest showdown over a Supreme Court filibuster is a very, very good thing for the bases of both parties.
The Republican base has long cared deeply about the makeup of the highest court in the country. President Donald Trump’s decision to release a list of judges he might appoint if he was elected president was the single most effective tool he deployed for rallying skeptical conservatives behind him during the campaign. The GOP base was uniquely open to the idea that, whether or not they liked Trump personally, he would put in place judges that were significantly more in line with their thinking than would Hillary Clinton.
Senate Republicans’ willingness to buck the procedural roadblock caused by Democrats unwilling to support Gorsuch will be cheered by the party base. Money will be raised off of the strong stance McConnell and his Senate colleagues take against a recalcitrant group of Democrats. And, most importantly, not a single Republican up in 2018 will suffer even the slightest bit of blowback for pushing the nuclear button.
On the Democratic side, the calculation is more complicated – but only slightly so.
Some Democratic leaders had floated the idea of avoiding a filibuster on Gorsuch in order to preserve their leverage when another court vacancy occurred and Trump had the opportunity with his pick to fundamentally alter the ideological makeup of the highest court in the country.
But any talk of conciliation or cooperation with Trump on any front – Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer was the leading edge of that idea – was immediately pushed to the side by a Democratic base who demanded confrontation at all times with Trump.
It was Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and hero to the liberal base, who crystallized that sentiment in an interview with The New York Times last month.
“For me, it was so important to make clear: We will fight back — we will fight back,” she said. “We’re not here to make this normal.”
Schumer, never one to fight an unwinnable fight, has spent the last few weeks rallying support for the filibuster among his caucus – an effort that formally succeeded Monday when the 41st Democratic senator came out against ending debate on the Gorsuch nomination.
There are four Democrats who have said they will buck their party and vote for cloture: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The first three are up for re-election in 2018 and sit in heavily conservative states where the Democratic base vote is nowhere near enough to get them re-elected. Bennet is a somewhat unique case in that Gorsuch is from Colorado.
For the rest of the Democratic caucus, there is far more political risk in voting for the Gorsuch nomination to proceed than there is in blocking it.
While people like Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri sit in states that Trump carried and will need to face voters in 2018, they are both against cloture and Gorsuch more broadly. Why? Because there is a very active Democratic base in both of their states that the senators believe is not worth making angry at this point.
The easy vote – for both parties – is to provoke and then trigger the nuclear option. It will engage the bases and likely offer very little blowback anywhere else. It’s a political win-win.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing for the country. But political concerns dominate these days and that’s why the Senate is about to go nuclear. Again.