Republicans on Thursday ended decades of Senate tradition by changing the rules to keep Democrats from blocking President Trump's nomination of Judge Neil M Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Senate Republicans changed longstanding rules to clear the way for the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch,by allowing the nomination to go forward on a simple majority vote.
On a strict party-line vote at the direction of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Senate invoked what has become known as the ''nuclear option'' and formally lowered the threshold for ending debate on a nomination to 51 votes from 60, paving the way for Gorsuch to win confirmation on Friday.
In deploying the so-called nuclear option, lawmakers are fundamentally altering the way the Senate handles one of its most significant duties - a sign of the body's creeping rancour in recent years after decades of at least relative bipartisanship on Supreme Court matters.
Both parties have warned of sweeping effects on the future of the court, predicting that the shift will lead to the elevation of more ideologically extreme judges if only a majority is required for confirmation.
Senate Democrats in 2013 first changed the rules of the Senate to block Republican filibusters of presidential nominees to lower courts and to government positions, but they left the filibuster in place for Supreme Court nominees, an acknowledgement of the sacrosanct nature of the high court. That last pillar was knocked down on a party-line vote, with all 52 Republicans voting to overrule Senate precedent and all 48 Democrats and liberal-leaning independents voting to keep it.
The Senate then voted 55-45 to cut off debate - four votes more than needed under the new rules - and move to a final vote on Judge Gorsuch's confirmation Friday evening, with a simple majority needed for approval.
Lawmakers first convened late Thursday morning to decide whether to end debate and advance to a final vote on Judge Gorsuch. Republicans needed 60 votes - at least eight Democrats and independents joining the 52-seat majority - to end debate on the nomination and proceed to a final vote. Only a handful of Democrats defected, and the vote failed, 55-45, leaving Republicans to choose between allowing the president's nominee to fail or bulldozing past long-held Senate practice.
For weeks, the outcome of the Senate fight has appeared preordained, even as members lamented its inevitability as a low moment for the chamber. In recent days, faint rumblings of a deal to avert the clash had faded almost entirely.
Republicans have argued that changing the rules to push through the nomination was their only option, seeking to shift responsibility for blowing up the Senate's longstanding practices to the Democrats. Allowing the filibuster to succeed, they said, would cause more damage than overriding Senate precedent to ensure it fails.
''This is the latest escalation in the left's never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet,'' Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, said after describing Democratic opposition in the past to Judge Robert H Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. ''And it cannot and it will not stand. There cannot be two sets of standards: one for the nominees of the Democratic president and another for the nominee of a Republican president.''
Republicans had earlier threatened to ''go nuclear'' if Democrats filibuster Gorsuch's confirmation. It's a term meant to evoke horror, because it would turn the Senate from a debate-friendly body into a more partisan chamber like the House.
But Democrats had shown no signs of forsaking their filibuster plans all week. That has pleased their most progressive voters, who have preached resistance to Trump at every opportunity, and supplied the minority party with perhaps its loudest megaphone so far under the new president.
Many Democrats remain furious over the treatment of Judge Merrick B Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee for the seat left vacant with the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans refused to even consider Judge Garland during the presidential election year, a fact McConnell has not dwelled on during public statements about the history of Republican behaviour under Democratic presidents.
At the same time, critics of Judge Gorsuch say they have identified ample reasons to oppose him, chafing at the suggestion that Democrats are merely seeking payback. They have cited concerns over Judge Gorsuch's record on workers' rights and whether he will be reliably independent from Trump and conservative groups like the Federalist Society, among other issues.