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Senate Invokes 'Nuclear Option' To Ease Gorsuch Nomination


Democrats in the Senate today moved to block a vote on President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch. And as expected, Republicans responded by going with the so-called nuclear option, changing the Senate's longstanding filibuster rule and clearing the way for a vote tomorrow on Gorsuch. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: At the end of a choreographed set of parliamentary votes, the Senate voted along party lines, 52 to 48, to end the 60-vote requirement for cutting off debate and proceeding to a vote on Supreme Court nominations. Republican Orrin Hatch was in the chair.


ORRIN HATCH: On this vote, the ayes are 48. The nays are 52. The decision of the chair does not stand as the judgment of the Senate.

TOTENBERG: On the Senate floor, there were high fives between Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn. But Democrats and, privately, some Republicans were depressed. Here's Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer.


CHARLES SCHUMER: There's a reason it was dubbed the nuclear option. It's the most extreme measure with the most extreme consequences. I know that in 20 or 30 or 40 years, we will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court.

TOTENBERG: Today's vote means that in future, all presidential nominations including for the Supreme Court cannot be held up by a prolonged debate. To force a vote on any nomination would take only a majority, not a 60-vote supermajority. Republicans noted that Democrats opened the door to today's outcome in 2013 when they abolished the 60-vote requirement to end debate on executive and lower court nominations.

But Democrats retorted that they were forced to take that drastic action because of Republican abuse of the filibuster rule. Indeed, Republicans employed the filibuster 79 times to delay or kill executive and judicial nominations during the first four years of the Obama administration. That's more than half of all the Senate filibusters on nominations in the nation's history.

Back in 2013, however, the Democrats left the filibuster in place for Supreme Court nominations, believing that lifetime appointments to the nation's highest court are different. In that vein, they were able to gather well over the 41 votes today to block a vote on Gorsuch, and that in turn prompted the GOP to invoke the so-called nuclear option which requires only a majority vote to cut off debate on a high court nominee. Republican Ted Cruz said the GOP move was necessary.

TED CRUZ: The radical left is demanding of Democrats they obstruct everything. That is not good for the Senate. It's not good for the country. And I think in time, it's not going to be good for the Democratic Party either.

TOTENBERG: The Senate has always prided itself on being the world's most deliberative body. Today it got rid of the last vestige of deliberation on nominations. What remains to be seen is whether Republicans will use the same tactic to eliminate the filibuster for legislation that they want enacted. Today there seemed little appetite for that among senior Senate Republicans like Hatch.

HATCH: Oh (laughter), we'll never do that. If we do that, the Senate would become like the House. And the Senate is a place of deliberation. It's not supposed to be a place where you just quickly move things through. And the filibuster rule is a very great protection for the minority.

TOTENBERG: A final vote on the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination is expected tomorrow with a prompt swearing in at the court shortly thereafter. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.