Senate approves nuclear option in fight over Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination

(ABC News)
(ABC News)

(ABC NEWS) – The Senate has altered the longstanding practice for confirming Supreme Court justices by lowering the 60-vote majority threshold to 51 after Democrats today blocked the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

In order to bypass Democrats’ opposition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., first invoked the so-called nuclear option. The Senate then voted to change Senate precedent on voting on Supreme Court cloture votes from the 60-vote threshold to a simple majority of 51 votes.

Republicans on their own did not have enough votes to end the floor debate on Gorsuch’s nomination, a move known as cloture, under the current rules requiring 60 votes. The first Senate vote to end debate (cloture) on Gorsuch’s nomination failed with a vote of 55-45.

The actual proceedings that comprise the “nuclear option” are somewhat wonky. The majority leader and presiding officer, guided by parliamentary experts, go through a series of choreographed steps in which the leader suggests a change to the rules, the presiding officer challenges him, and then the leader calls a vote on a rules change, which only requires 51 votes.

With the vote to sustain the ruling of the chair having failed 48-52, the Senate rules changed. After the rules change, the Senate holds a second cloture vote, this one only requiring the simple majority of the 51-vote threshold.

Once passed, that vote starts the clock on a 30-hour debate period, after which time the Senate votes on the Gorsuch confirmation itself, likely sometime Friday afternoon or evening.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., made several attempts to delay the “nuclear option” process with no success.

Republicans have accused Democrats of unfairly obstructing a qualified jurist, while Democrats argued that Gorsuch is too radical for the court.

“One way or the other, we will confirm Judge Gorsuch,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.

Today on the Senate floor, Sen. McConnell made a last plea to his colleagues not to force him to trigger the “nuclear option.”

“So let me say this to my Democratic colleagues: If you truly cannot support the nomination of this eminently qualified nominee, then at least allow the bipartisan majority of the Senate that supports Gorsuch to take an up-or-down vote,” Sen. McConnell said. “You already deployed the nuclear option in 2013. Don’t trigger it again in 2017.”

McConnell’s invocation of the “nuclear option” is not be the first time it has done. Then-leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, did the same thing in 2013 in response to what Democrats said was historic obstruction of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet nominees and lower-court judicial appointees. The margin was lowered on those votes, but the threshold for Supreme Court nominations went unchanged.

ABC News’ Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.

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