Republicans will take a major step Monday toward restoring the conservative majority on the Supreme Court lost last year when Justice Antonin Scalia's death led to a political standoff involving all three branches of government.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on the nomination of federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch just 62 days after his nomination by President Trump — a vote Republicans denied President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, for 293 days last year.
That will set the stage for a showdown before week's end in which Gorsuch's 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.
"We're going to confirm Judge Gorsuch this week," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Fox News Sunday. "The way in which that occurs is in the hands of the Democratic minority."
Democrats still seething over Republicans' refusal to consider Garland's nomination will try to block a final vote on Gorsuch unless he can get the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Republicans, with a 52-48 majority, have vowed to change the Senate's arcane rules if necessary.
McConnell said Sunday it was not yet clear if there were enough Democrats to stop a filibuster and would not rule out changing the rules. An increasing number of Democrats — even those from states that Trump won — have announced they'll support a filibuster, a bad sign for Republicans hoping to make a deal.
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 Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California 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has a filibuster blocked a high court nominee: Justice Abe Fortas, whose 1968 nomination to be chief justice later was withdrawn.
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. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill — another Democrat up for reelection in 2018 and from a state that voted for Trump — announced she was for a filibuster. There still are a handful of senators who have not yet said which way they'll vote, but McCaskill's decision proves just how powerful the liberal base is in pushing for a complete block of the nominee.
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