McConnell’s shining moment

Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is a huge victory for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ky.), a frequent target of conservatives who saved Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat for the right.

When Scalia died suddenly in February 2016, in seemed certain that then-President Obama would be able to tilt the court to the left with his third appointment.

Instead, McConnell issued a statement within hours that essentially shut the door on an Obama appointment, stating “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

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The Senate GOP backed McConnell up, and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE won the presidential election in an upset of Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference The Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  MORE.

Months later, Trump nominated Gorsuch. McConnell made good on his promise to see the judge confirmed, even triggering the controversial "nuclear option" to break Democrats' blockade and end filibusters for Supreme Court nominees.

“When the final chapter in Mitch McConnell’s book is written, this will place very prominently,” said Sen. Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers zero in on Twitter after massive hack | US, UK, Canada allege Russian hackers targeted COVID-19 vaccine researchers | Top EU court rules data transfer deal with the US is illegal Lawmakers zero in on Twitter following massive hack MORE (R-Miss.).

“It prevented the court from going in a completely opposite direction, so in that sense, it’s a huge victory, consequential for decades,” he added.

McConnell on Friday, moments before the Senate confirmed Gorsuch, said the decision to keep the seat open was “the most consequential decision I’ve ever been involved in.”

The strategy leaves McConnell as an unlikely hero of hard-line conservative activists who have sometimes criticized him over as an establishment figure too willing to craft deals with Democrats.

Aside from shaping the makeup of the court for years to come, McConnell’s strategy also had a political payoff for Republicans.

Wicker, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the last election cycle, said McConnell’s strategy helped Republicans keep their Senate majority in the face of long odds because it motivated conservative voters to show up on Election Day.

“It was impactful,” Wicker said. “It’s all the more remarkable because he did it on an audible.”

Wicker said McConnell made an instant call to keep the seat vacant when he heard of Scalia’s death “on a weekend, with no advisers around him and with no opportunity to even get the leadership together on a conference call.”

“He called an audible, and it was pitch perfect,” he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-Iowa) noted in an interview this week that he didn’t meet with McConnell about the vacancy until the Tuesday after Scalia’s death.

Conservative leaders who in the past have sometimes been antagonistic with McConnell praised the confirmation of Gorsuch — though their compliments were somewhat backhanded.

Daniel Horowitz, senior editor at the Conservative Review, said McConnell’s handling of the nomination impressed past critics on the right.

“With McConnell he seems to lead from behind on most issues and that’s why the Gorsuch issue really stood out,” he said. “Republicans feel so hurt and burned on judicial nominees. There was nowhere to move on that. They had to stand and fight on that.”

He said conservatives would like to “see the Neil Gorsuch degree of intensity on the budget battle.”

“Why don’t we see that on healthcare?” he added. “He doesn’t speak out publicly on the issues of our time for the most part.”

Chip Roy, the former chief of staff to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzThe Hill's Campaign Report: COVID-19 puts conventions in flux  Ted Cruz bashes Oprah for 'lecture' on race: 'What utter, racist BS' Senate Democrats prepare seven-figure spending spree in Texas MORE (R-Texas), who frequently battled with McConnell during his first few years in the Senate, said conservatives are delighted with the outcome but warned that the GOP leader shouldn’t rest on his laurels for too long.

“The Senate leadership did its job and conservatives across the country are glad to see Gorsuch confirmed but conservatives are going to expect much more, such as following through on the repeal of ObamaCare and standing firm on the next circuit court nominees,” he added.

McConnell will also go down in history as the majority leader who pushed through a change in the Senate’s rules that ended the the minority party's ability to filibuster Supreme Court nominations. It’s a surprising position for the Kentuckian, who is known as an institutionalist.

Some Republicans this week lamented that the battle over the court had become so contentious.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCNN's Ana Navarro to host Biden roundtable on making 'Trump a one-term president' Mark Kelly clinches Democratic Senate nod in Arizona Prominent conservatives question Jerry Falwell Jr. vacation photo MORE (R-Ariz.) said whoever thought using the nuclear option would make the Senate a better place “was a stupid idiot” and Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsAnalysis finds record high number of woman versus woman congressional races Group of GOP senators back more money for airlines to pay workers Republicans uncomfortably playing defense MORE (R-Maine) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney clashes with Trump Sessions-Tuberville Senate runoff heats up in Alabama GOP lawmakers stick to Trump amid new criticism MORE (R-Tenn.) voiced concerns that it could someday lead to the legislative filibuster being abolished, too.

McConnell’s hardball handling of Scalia’s seat also raised questions whether it might blow up relations with Democrats and hurt the chances of passing Trump’s legislative agenda later this year and next.

Schumer on Friday warned it “will make this body a more partisan place.”

“It will make the cooling saucer of the Senate considerably hotter, and I believe it will make the Supreme Court a more partisan place,” he added, making reference to the Founding Fathers’ vision of the Senate as a more deliberative body that would cool the populist passions of the House.

Yet McConnell’s nuclear move also followed the decision by Senate Democrats in 2013 to get rid of the filibuster for all nominations besides those to the Supreme Court. That also involved using the nuclear option.

McConnell on Friday said Democrats have already told him privately they are ready to move on from the fight over Gorsuch and other nominees and begin working on areas where they agree with Trump’s legislative agenda.

“I hope a lot of the Democrats who have been telling me privately they want to move past that will be able to do that publicly when we get back,” he said.

Updated: 2:51 p.m.