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.

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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 CornynOn The Money: Lawmakers strike spending deal | US, China reach limited trade deal ahead of tariff deadline | Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst over new NAFTA Senate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal Lighthizer fails to quell GOP angst on trade deal MORE (Texas) said Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump McConnell says he'll be in 'total coordination' with White House on impeachment trial strategy 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 ObamaDemocrats' self-inflicted diversity vulnerability Gaetz: We didn't impeach Obama even though 'a lot of constituents' think he abused his power Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment 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 CollinsSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial McConnell: I doubt any GOP senator will vote to impeach Trump Democrats spend big to put Senate in play MORE (R-Maine) and Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenators zero in on shadowy court at center of IG report DOJ inspector general refutes Trump claim that Obama tapped his wires Live coverage: DOJ inspector general testifies on Capitol Hill 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 McCainJeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House panel debates articles of impeachment Budowsky: Would John McCain back impeachment? 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 SchumerSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA CEO group pushes Trump, Congress on paid family, medical leave Krystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment? 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 CruzSenate Republicans air complaints to Trump administration on trade deal Senate passes Armenian genocide resolution Houston police chief stands by criticism of McConnell, Cruz, Cornyn: 'This is not political' 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.