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McCain condemns GOP nuclear option to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court pick

Judge Neil Gorsuch, left, and Arizona Sen. John McCain. (AP Photos)

PHOENIX — Senate Republicans plan to use a so-called nuclear option to confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee this week, an option that Arizona Sen. John McCain is not on board with.

“That after 200 years — at least 100 years of this tradition where the Senate has functioned pretty well — they think it would be a good idea to blow it out. No, whoever says that is a stupid idiot,” McCain told NBC News.

But even though McCain spoke out against his own party leaders, he told reporters on Monday that he would vote to end a filibuster by Senate Democrats and confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

McCain also told CNN’s New Day on Tuesday that using the nuclear option to confirm Gorsuch will be a “dark day in the history of the United States Senate.”

“It’s interesting that Republicans were dead set against it when my former colleague Harry Reid invoked it with the judges, but now it seems to be OK,” McCain said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to invoke the so-called nuclear option in order to change the rules to eliminate the 60-vote threshold and require just a simple majority on Gorsuch and all future Supreme Court nominees.

The option will be invoked because, with a 52-member conference, Senate Republicans lack the 60 votes that are required for cloture — the procedure for ending a debate and taking a vote — and will be able to use a simple majority vote in order to confirm Gorsuch.

Senate Democrats blamed Republicans for pushing them to attempt a nearly unheard of filibuster of a well-qualified Supreme Court pick. Forty-four Democrats intend to vote against proceeding to final confirmation on Gorsuch, which would be enough to block him under the Senate’s filibuster rules that require 60 votes to proceed.

Only three Senate Democrats are expected to vote to confirm Gorsuch: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

Despite the misgivings voiced by many Republicans, including McCain, McConnell said he has the votes needed in order to invoke the nuclear option.

But many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle believe the move will have devastating effects on future confirmations for Supreme Court nominees.

McCain told New Day that the Republican Party could find itself in trouble if the Democrats invoke the nuclear option when it regains the majority in the Senate.

“If you can do this with 51 votes, what do you think the next nominee is going to be like?” McCain asked. “What do you think will happen when eventually Democrats are in majority in the Senate? That’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I hope later.”

Democrats tried mightily to keep the focus on Republicans’ plans to change Senate rules, rather than on their own plans to obstruct a nominee who would likely have gotten onto the court easily with no filibuster in earlier and less contentious political times.

“Senator McConnell would have the world believe that his hands are tied. That the only option after Judge Gorsuch doesn’t earn 60 votes is to break the rules, to change the rules,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “That could not be further from the truth.”

In fact, a Senate rules change does appear to be Republicans’ one route to put Gorsuch on the court. And despite claims from Schumer and others that Trump and Republicans could go back to the drawing board and come up with a more “mainstream” nominee, it seems unlikely that any nominee produced by Trump would win Democrats’ approval.

On Tuesday, McConnell officially filed “cloture,” the procedural motion to end debate on Gorsuch’s nomination and bring it to a final vote. That started the clock toward a showdown Thursday, when Democrats are expected to try to block Gorsuch, at which point Republicans would respond by enacting the rules change. The change is known on Capitol Hill as the “nuclear option” because of the potential repercussions for the Senate and the court.

For the Senate, it would mean that Supreme Court nominees in future could get on the court with no assent from the minority party, potentially leading to a more ideologically polarized court.

More immediately, Gorsuch’s confirmation to fill the vacancy on the court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia 14 months ago would restore the conservative voting majority that existed before his death and could persist or grow for years to come.

Though they have little recourse, Democrats planned to spend the rest of the week arguing against Gorsuch on the Senate floor. Just before 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley went to the floor to talk for “as long as I’m able” to protest Republicans’ 2016 blockade of President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat, Merrick Garland.

“Make no mistake: this is a stolen seat — and if this theft is completed, it will undermine the integrity of the court for decades,” Merkley tweeted as he began.

Merkley’s speech wasn’t expected to delay Wednesday’s debate on Gorsuch or Thursday’s votes.

Senators of both parties bemoaned the further erosion of their traditions of bipartisanship and consensus. Some were already predicting that they would end up eliminating the 60-vote requirement for legislation, but McConnell committed Tuesday that would not happen under his watch.

He drew a distinction between legislation being filibustered and the filibuster being used against nominees, something that is a more recent development.

Gorsuch, 49, is a 10-year veteran of a federal appeals court in Denver, where he’s compiled a highly conservative record that’s led Democrats to complain he sides with corporations without regards to the humanity of the plaintiffs before him.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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