WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Thursday joined her Republican colleagues in the Senate to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” to secure the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans voted 52 to 48 to change Senate rules so that presidential nominees to the nation’s top court only need a simple majority rather than a supermajority of 60 votes to be confirmed.
Collins, a past critic of using the nuclear option, said that negotiations during the past two weeks to avoid the rule change failed as distrust between both parties made it impossible to reach an agreement.
“The most problematic issue was a seismic shift in the way that senators view the standard that should be used to invoke a judicial filibuster,” Collins said. “The majority of my Democratic counterparts simply disagree with the notion that the filibuster should only be used in the nomination process under extraordinary circumstances.”
Last Tuesday, Collins took to the Senate floor to endorse Gorsuch, who sits on the Tenth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado, and urge Democrats not to filibuster his nomination, calling him “ unquestionably qualified.”
She warned her colleagues that “playing politics with judicial nominees is profoundly damaging to the Senate’s reputation and stature. It politicizes our judicial nomination process and threatens the independence of our courts, which are supposed to be above partisan politics.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted against changing the rules, saying the Senate has just “eliminated one of its checks against polarization and partisanship.”
“While I still believe we need to reform the way the Senate works so that we can break the logjam in Washington and do our jobs on behalf of the American people, it seems to me that — for major policy decisions like a lifetime appointment — it is not unreasonable to require 60 votes in order to garner broader, more sustainable bipartisan support,” King said.
King came out against Gorsuch on Tuesday, outlining a list of concerns about his “evasive” answers to questions during his confirmation hearings and his body of rulings and opinions that painted the picture “not of an independent judge, but of a judicial activist.”
Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, blasted King’s vote in a statement on Facebook, saying that Gorsuch is “well qualified” to serve on the court.
“With this vote Angus King has proven he sides with the extreme liberals in the Democratic Party and against common sense governing,” LePage said.
Thursday’s Republican power play came after Democrats, who amassed the 41 votes needed to filibuster Gorsuch on Monday, vowed to block his confirmation.
A final vote on Gorsuch is scheduled for Friday, when Republicans and three Democrats — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — are expected to vote to confirm him to fill the vacancy on the court’s bench left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“This will be the first and last partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday morning. Last year, McConnell blocked hearings and a vote on former President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Scalia, Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Collins said that Thursday’s rule change was “the inevitable product” of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision in 2013 to eliminate the use of the filibuster on most presidential nominations, a move Democrats said was necessary to break a Republican logjam of Obama nominees.
“If Democrats are unable to agree to have an up or down vote on a highly-qualified judge who has previously been confirmed by this body without a single objection, one has to wonder whether there is any nominee that the President could send up that they would agree to bring to a final vote,” she said.
Democrats, though, have raised concern that Gorsuch cannot be sufficiently independent of President Donald Trump, who attacked a federal district court judge on Twitter in February after he stayed an executive order barring entry into the U.S. for citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations, calling him a “so-called judge.”
A revised version of the travel ban, issued in March, also was stayed.
Democrats also have accused Gorsuch of siding with the interests of businesses over working Americans, and that his appointment could continue a trend of pro-business rulings issued from the court.
The minority party has benefited from the supermajority threshold, giving it the ability to stall the majority party’s legislative initiatives and force the Senate to come to bipartisan agreements in legislation and nominations. Democrats warned that Thursday’s rule change could worsen polarization in the chamber.
“The consequences for the Senate and for the future of the Supreme Court will be far-reaching,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said before the vote, adding that “The cooling saucer of the Senate will get considerably hotter.”
Collins called on her Senate colleagues to work to restore the chamber’s ethos of trust and compromise that made it a model for the world for more than two centuries.
“I hope that all of us will reflect upon this profoundly sad day for this greatest of American institutions to consider where we are right now, and what we can do to begin anew,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the judge President Trump attacked as an appellate judge. It was a federal district court judge.