Senate Goes Nuclear to Break
Historic Filibuster

Three Democrats join GOP in failed attempt to end filibuster of Gorsuch; filibuster nuked on party-line vote

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) exits the Senate Chamber after voting to invoke the 'nuclear option' / Getty Images
April 6, 2017

Senate Republicans pulled the trigger on the nuclear option to break the first-ever filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee.

The Senate voted 52-48 to change Senate rules to require only a simple majority to end debate on Judge Neil Gorsuch's nomination, rather than a 60-vote threshold. That vote broke along party lines with no Democrats joining the GOP majority.

Earlier, the Senate held a vote to end the filibuster without the nuclear option. Three Democratic senators—Joe Manchin (W.V.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), and Joe Donnelly (Ind.)—joined the 52-Republican majority in that 55-45 vote, which fell short of the 60 votes needed for cloture. After invoking the nuclear option, the Senate again voted 55-45 to successfully end the filibuster with the same three Democrats joining Senate Republicans.

Gorsuch's confirmation vote will be on Friday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said the "unprecedented" filibuster warranted changing the rules so a simple majority, rather than a 60-vote threshold, could end the Democratic blockade of Gorsuch.

"Our Democratic colleagues have done something today that is unprecedented in the history of the Senate," McConnell said. "Unfortunately, it has brought us to this point. We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate and get past this partisan filibuster."

The move came after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) vowed to use any means necessary to prevent Gorsuch's confirmation in retaliation for Republicans' refusal to hold confirmation proceedings for President Barack Obama's nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) announced Monday he would join the filibuster, reversing his prior position that any nominee deserved an up or down vote. Coons gave the Democrats enough votes to sustain a filibuster and block Gorsuch, who was unanimously confirmed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006, from replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the high court.

Schumer made parliamentary inquiries on the Senate floor in order to point out the historic nature of the nuclear option.

"Of the last 26 nominations of justices confirmed to the Supreme Court going back to 1954, how many were confirmed without a roll call vote or received more than 60 votes in support of their nomination either on cloture or on confirmation?" Schumer asked.

"The secretary of the senate's office confirms that 25 of 26 nominees were confirmed in one or another of the manners so described," presiding Sen. Deb Fischer (R., Neb.) responded.

Thursday's vote was not without precedent for federal judicial nominations. Democrats invoked the nuclear option in 2013 to help confirm several controversial Obama nominees to federal courts. Schumer pointed out that vote only applied to lower courts, rather than the Supreme Court.

The rules change earned applause from conservative groups. The Judicial Crisis Network, which has spent more than $10 million on a campaign to confirm Gorsuch, said Schumer's obstruction warranted the rule change, which would restore "the Senate to its tradition of up or down votes for Supreme Court nominees."

"Fifteen years ago Senator Schumer fundamentally changed the U.S. Senate by regularly deploying the filibuster to obstruct judicial nominations. He took it to another level with Judge Gorsuch, engaging in the first partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee in history," said Carrie Severino, the group's chief counsel, in a statement. "Leader McConnell and his Republican colleagues deserve an enormous amount of credit for finishing the deplorable practice that Senator Schumer started."

The Democratic Party is already fundraising off of the vote. Party Chairman Tom Perez issued an appeal to voters on Thursday afternoon asking for donations to help Democratic Senate candidates in 2018.

"Neil Gorsuch did not have the 60 votes needed to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. But rather than changing the candidate and finding someone worthy to sit on the Court -- someone who isn't indebted to corporations or billionaire backers, someone who believes in protecting the rights of workers, women, and LGBT people -- they decided to invoke the 'nuclear option' and confirm him to a lifetime appointment on a 51-vote Republican majority," Perez said. "Let's throw them out. Pitch in $3 or whatever you can to help elect Democrats and take back the Senate."

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel shot back in a release that voters "chose President Trump to pick the next Supreme Court Justice." Exit polls showed that 21 percent of all voters said that judicial nominations were the most important issue informing their presidential vote in 2016.

"By nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch he [Trump] picked a mainstream conservative with unparalleled bipartisan support," McDaniel said in a statement following the vote. "By participating in an unprecedented partisan filibuster Senate Democrats are making clear they are more interested in political grandstanding than doing what’s best for the people they were elected to represent."

Gorsuch is expected to be confirmed on Friday.