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In The Senate, A Showdown Over A Rule Change


There's a lot of drama on Capitol Hill this morning, much of it in the U.S. Senate where a debate on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court has been going on for a couple of days now. Republicans are ready to get on with it and send Gorsuch to his seat on the bench. Democrats are determined to block him. And as of now, they have the votes to do it. The Senate requires 60 votes to advance a high court nominee. Any minute now, though, Republicans in the Senate are expected to change the rules and lower that threshold. It's a move that could have big implications for the Supreme Court and for the Senate. NPR's Scott Detrow is at the Capitol following all this. He joins me now. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What is happening at this moment?

DETROW: So the Senate has just begun its cloture vote, and this is that preliminary vote to end debate on a nomination. Under current Senate rules - and that's key - you need 60 votes to do that. We know that more than 41 Democrats are going to vote no here. And ordinarily, that would end things. Merrick Garland - I'm sorry, Neil Gorsuch's nomination would not advance to a final vote. He would not be appointed to the court. But once this vote ends, we know that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will begin a series of procedural moves that will change the rules so that you only need 51 yes votes to end the debate. Then they'll hold the vote again, he'll have the votes he needs and will move forward.

MARTIN: So this would be a substantive change. We've been hearing this for a while now. But can you explain why? What could this change mean in practice?

DETROW: Well, in the short term, it means that Neil Gorsuch will be a point - will be confirmed for the Supreme Court when he otherwise would not have been. You know, we know that all Republicans and three Democrats are going to vote yes on his nomination ultimately, so he'll move to the court, the court will be full again. Long term, there's a lot of worry about what this could mean from both Democrats and Republicans because, you know, cloture rules can be really frustrating for the party in power. But what they ensure is that when a nominee does go forward, the nominee has support from both parties. There's buy-in from both sides. So the concern is that that wouldn't be the case anymore. And as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer just said on the floor, you'll have more partisan nominees, a more partisan court, more 5-to-4 rulings and in the end, a lot of erosion of trust in the court as anything - as other than a political institution.

MARTIN: But Democrats clearly think it's worth it in order to block this particular nomination.

DETROW: Yeah. And I think that you heard a lot of things on the floor just now that kind of get to the broader point here, that this is the culmination of more and more partisan, you know, trench warfare when it comes to these nominations. On the Republican side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just said that, you know, this clearly isn't about Gorsuch at all from Democrats. He says it's about the fact that President Trump nominated him.


MITCH MCCONNELL: So let me say this to my Democratic colleagues - if you truly cannot support the nomination of this eminently qualified nominee, then at least allow the bipartisan majority of the Senate that supports Gorsuch to take an up or down vote. You already deployed the nuclear option in 2013. Don't trigger it again in 2017.

DETROW: And, Rachel, I mixed up Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch's names before. I am not the first person to do that in the Senate that week because he's on every Democrat's mind. They're saying, you know, that...

MARTIN: Well played.

DETROW: That's a rich statement coming from McConnell, who blocked a vote or hearing on Garland. One thing that Chuck Schumer did say that I think everyone can agree on is that this nomination is the culmination of a lot of partisanship going back to the '80s.


CHUCK SCHUMER: Was it the Bork nomination or the obstruction of judges under President Clinton? Was it when Democrats blocked judges under President Bush or when Republicans blocked them under President Obama? Was it Judge Garland or Judge Gorsuch? Wherever we place the starting point of this long twilight battle over the judiciary, we are now at its end point.

MARTIN: And point being no matter how you cut it, Neil Gorsuch is headed for a new job.

DETROW: That's right. And we expect that final vote to be tomorrow at some point.

MARTIN: NPR's Scott Detrow watching the showdown in the Senate over the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.