It’s zero hour: Senate to go ‘nuclear’

Senate Republicans are expected to trigger the “nuclear option” on Thursday, eliminating the minority party’s power to filibuster Supreme Court nominees.

The historic vote will ensure the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s pick for the high court, preserving a conservative majority that had been in doubt after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death early last year. 

If all goes as expected, Gorsuch will receive a final confirmation vote Friday.

It will also be another step in weakening the filibuster, raising questions about whether other instances requiring a 60-vote supermajority will survive for long.


The vote to change the rule is expected Thursday morning, shortly after a separate vote to end debate on Gorsuch’s nomination.

Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynSenate approves .3 trillion spending bill, sending to Trump GOP senator threatened to hold up bill over provision to honor late political rival: report Overnight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate MORE (Texas) said Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellYou just can't keep good health policy down Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix Democrats desperate for a win hail spending bill MORE (R-Ky.) will move ahead with the nuclear option an hour after the Senate convenes.

If he follows the same playbook that Democrats used in 2013 — when they eliminated filibusters against executive branch and judicial nominees for lower courts — McConnell will move to set a new precedent immediately after Democrats block Gorsuch’s nomination.

A 52-48 vote to change the rule is expected, with all Democrats and their Independent allies opposed.

The tactic of using a simple majority, party-line vote to rewrite Senate rules was once considered so extreme that former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) dubbed it the nuclear option.

The Senate now seems resigned to the change, even as lawmakers warn it will buck decades of tradition and further polarize the Supreme Court.

It’s a galling outcome for Democrats still bitterly angry over McConnell’s decision last year to block Merrick Garland, former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaYou just can't keep good health policy down Obama Foundation announces new job training program for Chicago students Biden praises Parkland students fighting for gun reform: ‘They’re going to win’ MORE’s pick to succeed Scalia, from a hearing or vote.

Some veteran GOP senators worry the rule change will damage the Senate by eroding minority-party rights. They also worry that it may put the chamber on a slippery slope to getting rid of the filibuster for legislation, too.

But junior Republicans led by Sen. James Lankford (Okla.) are pushing for additional changes to the rules that would speed up consideration of hundreds of other Trump nominees.

A group of Republicans and Democrats led by Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care: House passes .3T omnibus | Bill boosts funds for NIH, opioid treatment | Senators spar over ObamaCare fix | 'Right to Try' bill heads to the Senate Winners and losers from the .3T omnibus Senators introduced revised version of election cyber bill MORE (R-Maine) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsOnce on chopping block, Trump's budget puts development finance in overdrive Overnight Defense: Senate sides with Trump on military role in Yemen | Dem vets push for new war authorization on Iraq anniversary | General says time isn't 'right' for space corps Water has experienced a decade of bipartisan success MORE (D-Del.) negotiated intensely over the weekend in hopes of avoiding a blowup over the rules, but they fell short.

“The negotiations with which I was heavily involved have failed to come up with a compromise, which saddens me. There’s so little trust between the two parties that it was very difficult to put together an agreement that would avert changing the rules,” Collins told reporters.

“I worked very hard over the weekend, as did several Democrats and several Republicans, but we were not able to reach an agreement,” Collins added, estimating that about 10 lawmakers were involved.

The group held calls as early as 

6:30 a.m. and as late as midnight in hopes of avoiding a rule change adopted along party lines.

Coons said the talks fell apart because of pressure from Senate leaders, who weren’t interested in a deal, and from the conservative and liberal bases of the party, who view the Supreme Court’s composition as a top priority.

“The fact that both leaders were opposing negotiations also, frankly, made it difficult,” Coons said. “Both caucus leadership and outside groups were a source of steady and aggressive pressure against some consensus negotiation, in both parties.”

He said a deal was also made difficult because of a lack of trust between both sides, lingering anger among Democrats over how Republicans treated Garland and residual Republican resentment of the 2013 filibuster change.

Coons solicited advice from former senators who were members of the Gang of 14, which struck a deal in 2005 that averted the nuclear option, which then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wanted to use to confirm President George W. Bush’s stalled judicial nominees.  

He said it was striking how much more partisan the Senate’s atmosphere is today compared with a decade ago.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain asks Trump's CIA pick to explain ties to torture Petraeus: Haspel will explain actions in nomination hearing Afghanistan is our longest war ever and Congress has abandoned all responsibility MORE (R-Ariz.), who helped craft the Gang of 14 deal, agreed that both party leaders seemed uninterested in a deal.

A Republican senator and a conservative activist told The Hill that the Federalist Society has quietly lobbied for McConnell to trigger the nuclear option so that it would be easier for Trump to appoint another conservative nominee to the court if another seat becomes vacant.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFox News host Watters says spending bill was 'huge defeat' for Trump Amtrak to rename Rochester station after Louise Slaughter Conscience protections for health-care providers should be standard MORE (N.Y.) has taken a hard line against Gorsuch since the day Trump nominated him, when an estimated 3,000 protesters gathered outside Schumer’s Brooklyn apartment to urge him to fight.

Despite assurance from McConnell that the rule change will be limited to nominees, senators from both parties warn there will be pressure to lower the threshold for advancing legislation as well.

Collins will ask colleagues to sign a letter to both leaders “that puts as many of us as possible on record as saying we would not support the elimination of the legislative filibuster.”

While no Republican senator has come out explicitly in support of scrapping the legislative filibuster, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLesson from special election: Run on Social Security, Medicare and lower drug prices Conservatives balk over funding bill ahead of shutdown  Confirmation fight over Trump pick exposes blurred lines in GOP-LGBT activism MORE (R-Texas) suggested last month that Vice President Pence take a broad view of what proposals could be allowed in a healthcare bill that leaders wanted to pass through the Senate with 51 votes under special budget rules.

Jordain Carney contributed.