Lawmakers traded bitter accusations on the Senate floor Thursday ahead of showdown votes over President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee that could change the Senate and the court for generations.
The confrontation will play out over the coming hours as 44 Democrats and independents try to block the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch by denying Republicans the 60 votes needed to proceed to final passage.
Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., intend to respond by unilaterally changing Senate rules to remove the 60-vote filibuster requirement for Gorsuch and all future Supreme Court nominees, reducing it to a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
McConnell accused Democrats of forcing his hand by trying to filibuster a highly qualified nominee in Gorsuch, 49, a 10-year veteran of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver with a consistently conservative record. McConnell vowed that the rules change would block the Gorsuch filibuster, and all future ones, a change many lawmakers lamented could lead to an even more polarized Senate, court and country.
"This will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee," McConnell insisted. "This is the latest escalation in the left's never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand."
Supreme Court filibusters have been nearly unheard of in the Senate, but the confrontation is playing out amid an explosive political atmosphere with liberal Democrats furious over the Trump presidency and Republicans desperate to get a win after months of chaos from Trump.
Democrats remain livid over McConnell's decision last year to deny consideration to then-President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was ignored for nearly a year by Senate Republicans after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Instead, McConnell kept Scalia's seat open, a calculation that is now paying off for Republicans and Trump, who will be able to claim the biggest victory of his presidency to date if Gorsuch is confirmed as expected.
"We believe that what Republicans did to Merrick Garland was worse than a filibuster," declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "We didn't hear two words in the long speech of Senator McConnell: Merrick Garland."
The coming rules change is known as the "nuclear option" because of its far-reaching implications. "The nuclear option means the end of a long history of consensus on Supreme Court nominations. It weakens the standing of the Senate as a whole," Schumer said.
Emotions were running high ahead of the votes with raised voices on the floor where proceedings are normally sedate. All involved were keenly aware of the long-term implications of the proceedings, some of them hard to predict for the future of Trump's presidency and the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans will be defending their slim 52-48 Senate majority and 10 vulnerable Democrats in states Trump won will be up for re-election.
If the maneuvering plays out as expected it will set the stage for a final confirmation vote on Gorsuch Friday, allowing him to join the court in time to hear the final set of cases this term.
Senators on both sides of the aisle lamented the trajectory they were on toward the Senate rules change, though they themselves were in position to prevent it from happening and failed to do so.
Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said roughly 10 senators of both parties worked over the weekend to come up with a deal to stave off the so-called "nuclear option," as the rules change is known, but couldn't come to agreement. In 2005, a bipartisan deal headed off GOP plans to remove the filibuster barrier for lower-court nominees, but in 2013 Democrats took the step, leaving the filibuster in place only for Supreme Court justices.
And now, with political polarization at an extreme, the Senate is on the verge of killing off the Supreme Court filibuster, the one remaining vestige of bipartisanship on presidential appointments. For now the filibuster barrier on legislation will remain, though many fear it could be the next to go.
"I fear that someday we will regret what we are about to do. In fact, I am confident we will," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It is imperative we have a functioning Senate where the rights of the minority are protected regardless of which party is in power at the time."
Nonetheless, McCain was prepared to vote with McConnell on the rules change, saying he felt he had no choice.
Gorsuch now counts 55 supporters in the Senate: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won last November — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, has said he will not join in the filibuster against Gorsuch but has not said how he will vote on confirmation.