WASHINGTON — Republicans voted Thursday to invoke the "nuclear option" to strip Democrats of their power to block Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch from being confirmed — a victory with far-reaching consequences that could forever change the way justices are approved and shatter the Senate's bipartisan traditions.
The dramatic action, approved by a party-line vote, cleared the way for the Republican majority to end the Democrats' filibuster of Gorsuch's nomination immediately afterward. Senators voted 55-45 to end debate and advance Gorsuch's nomination to a final up-or-down confirmation vote on Friday.
The vote to approve the nuclear option changed the Senate filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees so that only a simple majority of senators are needed to end debate and move to a final confirmation vote. Before that change, it took 60 votes — three-fifths of the 100-member chamber — to end debate.
The action comes nearly 14 months after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13, 2016.
Earlier on Thursday, Democrats won a short-lived victory by blocking Gorsuch. An initial motion to end debate failed 55-45, falling five votes short of the 60 needed to end a filibuster before the rule change. Four Democrats joined 51 Republican senators to advance Gorsuch's nomination. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., changed his vote to a "no" at the last minute to preserve his ability to invoke the "nuclear option," changing Senate rules to get around the filibuster.
"There's a reason why it's called the nuclear option," Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor before the series of votes began. "It's the most extreme measure, with the most extreme consequences."
"The consequences for the Senate and for the future of the Supreme Court will be far-reaching," Schumer said. The 60-vote threshold in the Senate has been "the guardrail of our democracy ... when it comes to the courts, the guardrails are being dismantled."
McConnell urged Democrats on Thursday morning to have a last-minute change of heart and let Gorsuch's nomination go through. Otherwise, he warned sternly, "This will be the first and last partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination."
He emphasized that a successful partisan filibuster would be the first ever mounted against a Supreme Court nominee in the Senate's 230-year history. “This is the latest escalation in the never-ending judicial war,” McConnell said.
Schumer said Democrats "have principled reasons to vote against this nominee." Among them, he said, are Gorsuch's votes for corporate interests over average Americans, his ties to President Trump and his "deeply-held, far-right, special-interest judicial philosophy that is far outside the mainstream."
But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Democrats recognize that Gorsuch — a graduate of Columbia, Harvard and Oxford who clerked for two Supreme Court justices and has served a decade as an appeals court judge — deserves to be confirmed.
"That’s why this is an especially sad state of affairs," Grassley said. "At the end of the day, we’re left with an exceptional nominee, with impeccable credentials, and broad bipartisan support."
The No. 2-ranking Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, ridiculed Republicans for suggesting Democrats brought the Senate to this final action. He said the GOP leader cannot utter the name of Merrick Garland, who Republicans blocked from the court all last year.
“For the first time in the history of the Senate, for the first time ever, this Republican-led Senate refused to give this nominee a hearing and a vote,” Durbin said. Rather than voting on Gorsuch, he said, “We should be celebrating the one-year anniversary of Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court.”
Democrats remain angry that Republicans refused to consider former president Barack Obama's nomination of Garland to replace Scalia. Garland was considered a moderate choice by the liberal president, but leaders of the Republican-held Senate said Obama should not be allowed to put someone on the court during his last year in office. Instead, GOP leaders said Obama's successor should choose the nominee.
Republicans noted that Democrats first invoked the "nuclear option." In late 2013, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., convinced Senate Democrats to change Senate rules to prevent Republicans from blocking Obama's lower court and Cabinet nominees.
Gorsuch, the man caught in the middle of the bitter partisan fight, is expected to become the nation's 113th Supreme Court justice soon after the procedural maneuvering ends on Friday. He would be sworn in shortly thereafter and would be on the bench for the last two weeks of oral arguments of the court's 2016 term later this month.
The cerebral 49-year-old judge has expressed great admiration for Scalia, and shares the late justice's conservative views on how to interpret the Constitution. He has served as a judge on the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit for the past decade.