Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks with reporters reporters after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol Aug. 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Republicans execute ‘nuclear option,’ ending Supreme Court filibusters

A couple of hours ago, the Senate took up Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, and the cloture vote didn’t go his way. Instead of reaching the 60-vote threshold, Gorsuch ended up with 55 (it would’ve been 56, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had to change his vote for procedural reasons).

That left Republicans with a choice: either encourage Donald Trump to send a more mainstream nominee for the high court – one who might garner more bipartisan support – or change the rules of the Senate to end all Supreme Court filibusters forevermore.

The GOP majority chose the latter.
Senate Republicans used the “nuclear option” Thursday to change the chamber’s rules and clear the way for the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

The rules change will enable Gorsuch to easily pass through the Senate with a simple majority instead of the now-defunct 60-vote threshold.
In the short term, the vote means Gorsuch’s nomination will return to the floor, probably tomorrow, for a final up-or-down confirmation vote. With no Republican opponents, the conservative is now all but certain to join the Supreme Court.

But there’s an important context to all of this. Today’s drama on the Senate floor is the result of a series of Republican abuses, which GOP senators still struggle to defend.

The easiest, almost laziest, argument today is that Democrats executed their own “nuclear option” in 2013, and today was an example of Republicans simply returning the favor. But let’s not brush past what actually happened four years ago.

In case anyone’s forgotten, there were, at the time, multiple vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the nation’s most important benches, and President Obama nominated three qualified jurists, each of whom enjoyed majority support in the Senate.

Senate Republicans blocked the trio, filibustering each of the nominations.

GOP senators didn’t raise any specific objections to the jurists, but rather, said they didn’t want Obama to appoint anyone to the appellate court, ever. Republicans presented a demand never before heard in American history: the Senate must ignore the vacancies on one of the nation’s most important courts, indefinitely, because a minority of the chamber said so.

When Democrats noted how insane that was, GOP senators effectively dared the majority to do something about it. So, left with no choice, the Democratic majority turned to the “nuclear option” – a strategy Republican senators themselves crafted during the Bush/Cheney era.

GOP senators continue to characterize themselves as the victims of the events in 2013. That’s bonkers; they were the instigators of an ugly and unnecessary fight.

And while there are no angels when it comes to partisanship and fights over judicial nominees – any fair-minded person should concede there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around – it’s nevertheless true that Republican abuses are tough to defend.

In the Obama era, at Mitch McConnell’s insistence, obstructionism of judicial nominees reached levels never before seen in American history. In the Obama era, at Mitch McConnell’s insistence, Republicans created the conditions that made the original “nuclear option” necessary. In the Obama era, at Mitch McConnell’s insistence, Republicans created an unprecedented Supreme Court blockade, rejecting Merrick Garland – a qualified, compromise nominee – because Americans had the audacity to elect a Democratic president.

And today we see the culmination of the GOP’s maximalist, partisan gambit. McConnell & Co. stole a Supreme Court seat and handed it to Donald Trump.

I don’t doubt that much of the coverage will adopt the obligatory both-sides-are-always-to-blame framing, but the list of Republican abuses is long, uncontested, and sorely lacking in credible explanations.