Republicans invoke 'nuclear option' in Gorsuch nomination; he'll need just 51 votes now

DENVER – As he said in recent days he would do, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet on Thursday ordered the motion to end debate on the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Bennet said Monday he would not support a Democratic filibuster of the Colorado judge’s nomination, and he voted for cloture Thursday morning after 42 of his Democratic colleagues had already voted against it.

The vote ended 55-45, with Bennet, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin being the only Democrats not to vote for the filibuster – as all four had already said they would do.

That set the stage for the most-debated part of Gorsuch’s confirmation process, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell started the “nuclear option” process by appealing the ruling that cloture needs 60 votes to bypass the ongoing Democratic filibuster.

The Senate voted 48-52 not to appeal and to invoke the nuclear option, ending filibusters for Supreme Court nominees.

Gorsuch and all future Supreme Court nominees now need only a simple majority of 51 votes to be confirmed, not the two-thirds majority currently necessary.

Following the institution of the nuclear option, the Senate voted for cloture once again, setting the stage for what is likely to be at least 24 hours more of debate before a final vote on Gorsuch's confirmation takes place Friday.

There had been much debate between Democrats and Republicans in recent months, as Democrats are blamed for lowering the bar for the use of the “nuclear option” when they used it in 2013 to confirm several Obama nominees blocked by Republicans.

But Democrats have fought Republicans on that charge, noting that they refused to hold hearings with Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, for the past year in order to set the stage for a possible Republican president to make his own nomination. President Trump nominated Gorsuch in January.

Bennet pleaded earlier this week for Republicans not to use the nuclear option, but most Republicans support its use. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, is one of few exceptions; he called the idea to use the option for Supreme Court justices “stupid” earlier this week.

“We must not allow the judiciary — and especially the Supreme Court — to become a pure extension of our partisan elections and politics,” Bennet said in a Senate floor speech Wednesday evening regarding the Gorsuch nomination. “If that happens, Republicans would face enormous pressure to nominate an extreme candidate, knowing they could confirm them without a single Democratic vote, indeed that they would be expected to confirm them without a single Democratic vote.”

He pointed to the recent confirmations of several of Trump’s cabinet nominees, and said a nuclear option with judicial nominees could lead to a “Justice [Jeff] Sessions” or “Justice [Scott] Pruitt.”

“If we continue down this path, both could be confirmed with a slim majority vote,” Bennet said.

Bennet has still not said how he will vote on Gorsuch’s confirmation, but dropped some hints in the speech as well.

“I am concerned by his judicial approach, which too often seems to rely on the narrowest interpretation of the law with little appreciation for its context,” Bennet told his colleagues. “In particular, I believe he has far too much confidence in the original meaning of words in legislation, or for that matter, even in the Constitution.”

He said he believes that Gorsuch does not look enough into the context behind law: “Sometimes a comma really does end up in the wrong place,” he said.

But he also said he remains committed to historic Senate rules.

“Although I have reservations about his approach to the law, I do not have reservations about his qualifications for the Court. He is a committed and honorable public servant, and that is why so many members of the Colorado bar and bench support his nomination,” Bennet said.

“Qualified nominees deserve an up and down vote. That is the tradition of this body. How members vote is a matter of conscience for each of us.

He said using the filibuster and nuclear option during Gorsuch’s nomination would “undermine the minority [party’s] ability to check this Administration – and all those to follow.”

He then pointed to the need to have a strong minority part in the face of the current administration’s executive orders – some of which have already been struck down by judges across the country.

“Today we have a president who does not appreciate the separation of powers and who has made unprecedented attacks on the free press and the judiciary. The country needs an empowered Senate minority right now, more than ever,” Bennet said. “And more than that, the country needs a Senate that can forge consensus about our future, rather than carrying on the bitter and tired divisions of the past.”

Colorado’s other senator, Republican Cory Gardner, has hinted that he will support Gorsuch, saying he hoped Gorsuch will receive “a fair hearing” that he would work with “colleagues on both sides of the aisle to expeditiously confirm his nomination.”

Both Gardner and Bennet introduced Gorsuch, a Colorado native who has spent the past several years as a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Senate at the onset of the confirmation hearings last month.

A final Senate vote on Gorsuch's confirmation will take place Friday.

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