The Senate Judiciary Committee moved toward a vote Monday to recommend Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's confirmation, even as Democrats secured enough votes to filibuster the nomination on the Senate floor.
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., became the 41st Democrat to say he would vote to block the nomination. But Republicans, with a 52-48 majority, have vowed to change the Senate's rules if necessary to install him without requiring 60 votes.
Gorsuch's final confirmation isn't really in doubt, but how it is achieved will have a profound impact on the high court, the Senate and the 2018 elections. “If we have to, we will change the rules, and it looks like we will have to,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said.
The panel's 20 members began a last round of angry debate between Republicans determined to confirm Gorsuch to the seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February 2016 and Democrats still seething at the GOP's refusal to consider former President Barack Obama's choice last year.
The expected party-line vote will be a major step toward restoring the conservative majority on the Supreme Court lost last year when Scalia's death led to a political standoff involving all three branches of government.
The committee vote comes just 62 days after President Trump nominated the 49-year-old federal appeals court judge from Colorado — a vote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denied Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, for 293 days last year.
“Judge Gorsuch is eminently qualified. He’s a mainstream judge," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the committee chairman, said. "He's the picture of the kind of justice we should have on the Supreme Court.”
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee's top Democrat, said it was "not the usual nomination," citing Republicans' blockade of Garland as well as conservatives' spending upwards of $17 million on advertising against Garland and for Gorsuch.
For the last few days, an increasing number of Democrats — even those from states that Trump won — have announced they'll support a filibuster. Only four Democrats have opposed requiring 60 votes, the latest being Gorsuch's home-state Democratic senator, Michael Bennet.
One of the last Democrats to decide how to vote was Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., former chairman of the judiciary committee, who has voted to confirm six previous Republican presidents' nominees. On Monday, he said, “My conscience will not allow me to ratify the majority leader’s actions…. I will not, I cannot, support advancing this nomination.”
In the middle of the storm is Gorsuch, 49, a folksy but scholarly Coloradan whose résumé and reverence for the Constitution, laws and precedents have captivated Republicans and unnerved Democrats.
A 10-year veteran of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit by way of Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the University of Oxford, Gorsuch coasted through more than 20 hours of questioning by committee members last month. He did so without revealing his views on issues that could come before the high court in the years ahead, from abortion and affirmative action to gay rights and gun control.
The performance virtually assured the result of Monday's committee vote by uniting its 11 Republicans while putting the nine Democrats in what Feinstein called "a terrible position." Only once before has a filibuster blocked a high court nominee: Justice Abe Fortas, whose 1968 nomination to be chief justice later was withdrawn.
"This week the Senate I am convinced will confirm Judge Gorsuch as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said.
Since Gorsuch's appearance at the White House with Trump on Jan. 31, he has been characterized by Republicans as a stellar jurist beyond reproach and caricatured by Democrats as a tool of right-wing zealots and corporate profiteers.
His supporters have trotted out loyal ex-colleagues and law clerks to extol his fair-minded and level-headed approach to the law, while mounting a $10 million TV, digital and grass-roots campaign targeting the most vulnerable Democratic senators.
His opponents have seized on Garland's treatment, Gorsuch's evasiveness, conservatives' refusal to disclose their campaign's donors, and a number of the judge's decisions which they say favored big business and government over the "little guy."
The dueling efforts have led to the same political chasm that divides Democrats from Republicans on other issues in the nation's capital, most recently the GOP's failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. But Supreme Court nominations used to be above the fray; the fights that blocked federal appeals court Judge Robert Bork in 1987 and nearly upended now-Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 were rare exceptions.
This weekend, there were signs that some Democrats had grown weary of the impasse. Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota —Democrats whose home states voted overwhelmingly for Trump last November — announced their support for Gorsuch, inching him closer to the 60-vote threshold needed to reach a final, up-or-down vote without a rules change.
"I believe that he is a qualified jurist who will base his decisions on his understanding of the law and is well-respected among his peers,” Donnelly said in a statement Sunday.
But other red state Democrats are going in the other direction. Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana — Democrats up for reelection in 2018 from states that voted for Trump — announced they would support a filubuster. There still are a handful of senators who have not yet said which way they'll vote.
For the court, an end to the 14-month saga created by Scalia's death last Feb. 13 can't come soon enough. Its eight justices — four named by Republican presidents, four by Democrats — have deadlocked on four cases, reached purposefully modest rulings on others and avoided some altogether. A controversial religious liberty case pitting church versus state in Missouri was delayed until late April, apparently in hopes that a ninth justice would be on the bench by then.
And for all the machinations involving Obama and Garland, Trump and Gorsuch, both sides recognize that the battle over Scalia's seat likely pales compared to the next vacancy. Three justices are long past normal retirement age, including liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 84, and Stephen Breyer, 78, and moderate Anthony Kennedy, 80. Their replacements will determine the direction of the high court for decades to come.
Contributing: Eliza Collins