McConnell’s shining moment

Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is a huge victory for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Trump asks court to block release of tax returns to Congress | Private sector adds 330K jobs in July, well short of expectations Senate panel advances first three spending bills McConnell lays out GOP demands for government-funding 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 TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party MORE won the presidential election in an upset of Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBriahna Joy Gray: Progressives like Turner should reconsider running as Democrats Biden wishes Obama a happy birthday Ohio special election: A good day for Democrats 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 WickerNew hurdle slows trillion infrastructure bill GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Here's evidence the Senate confirmation process is broken 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyKaine says he has votes to pass Iraq War repeal in Senate Biden's ATF nominee on shaky ground in Senate Axne endorses Finkenauer Senate bid in Iowa 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 CruzOvernight Defense: Senate panel votes to scrap Iraq war authorizations | Police officer fatally stabbed outside Pentagon ID'd | Biden admin approves first Taiwan arms sale Senate panel votes to repeal Iraq war authorizations America's pandemic of COVID hypocrisy 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 McCainMeghan McCain to produce 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff' Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done Meghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' 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 CollinsGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate finalizes .2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill Schumer: Democrats 'on track' to pass bipartisan deal, .5T budget MORE (R-Maine) and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  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.