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Sen. McConnell prepares the ‘nuclear option’ to filibuster Neil Gorsuch

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky Credit: AP / J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell started down the path Tuesday to scrap the rule under which Democrats plan to filibuster President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, a step so potentially explosive that it’s called the “nuclear option.”

McConnell (R-Ky.) said he had the 51 votes in his 52-member Republican caucus needed to change Senate rules without Democratic support, a drastic step ending a centuries-old parliamentary procedure that could have major effects on the Senate and the Supreme Court.

Before that happens, however, McConnell said he first would set a vote for Thursday to break the Democrats’ promised filibuster of U.S. Circuit Court Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination. That would require 60 votes to invoke what’s called cloture to end the filibuster.

“We’re moving forward with the Gorsuch nomination for the Supreme Court,” McConnell said. “It appears as if cloture will not be invoked, but we’ll find out on Thursday. But either way, we’ll be moving toward confirming Judge Gorsuch on Friday.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stood his ground in opposing Gorsuch and in daring McConnell to trigger the rules change.

“Sen. McConnell would have the world believe that his hands are tied, that the only option after Judge Gorsuch doesn’t earn 60 votes is to break the rules, to change the rules. That could not be further from the truth,” said Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Every time in the history of this country that a Supreme Court nominee has failed to earn the necessary votes to pass the Senate, the answer has been to change the nominee, not the rules,” Schumer said. “We believe that is exactly what should happen now.”

Trump has shown no inclination to change his choice of Gorsuch.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Monday, “I believe Leader McConnell when he says on Friday Judge Gorsuch will be voted as the next Supreme Court justice.”

After McConnell sets the vote to end the filibuster, the Senate will spend 30 hours debating the nomination. If the Senate fails to break the filibuster, McConnell then could move on to make the rules change with a simple majority vote of 51 senators.

Changing the rules is called the nuclear option because of the fallout — in ill will within the Senate, in eroding each member’s senatorial privileges and in potentially changing the Supreme Court by giving it a more politically partisan edge.

McConnell and fellow Republicans said that Gorsuch is a well-qualified candidate for the high court, with support from lawyers from both parties. McConnell said there has never been a successful partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee — “never in the history of our country.”

Schumer and other Democrats paint Gorsuch as out of the mainstream, a conservative jurist who puts corporate interests ahead of individuals.

Schumer also accused McConnell of keeping open a vacancy on the Supreme Court that occurred 14 months ago with the death of conservative Associate Justice Antonin Scalia by refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.

“We did not get our nominee when Sen. McConnell broke 230 years of Senate precedent and didn’t even allow Judge Garland a hearing and a vote,” Schumer said. “Now, Senate Republicans aren’t going to get the necessary votes for their nominee.”

As of Tuesday, all 52 Republicans and three Democrats in states Trump won last year and who are facing an election in 2018 have declared they will vote for Gorsuch. Those Democrats are Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

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