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Gorsuch nomination clears committee; Senate showdown ahead

Updated April 3, 2017 - 2:27 pm

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel voted along party lines Friday to advance the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, setting up a historic showdown later this week in the full Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 to refer President Donald Trump’s high court selection to the full chamber, where debate is set to begin Tuesday and will culminate in a vote scheduled for Friday.

Democrats are threatening to filibuster the Supreme Court nominee. And Republicans are prepared to change Senate rules to seat Trump’s nominee.

The parliamentary tactics are the result of the hyper-partisan atmosphere following a divisive general election. Republicans are confident the Senate will fill the vacant Supreme Court seat, a major issue in the 2016 presidential race.

Republicans on the committee sought to portray Gorsuch as a centrist nominee with sterling credentials.

“Judge Gorsuch is imminently qualified. He is a mainstream judge,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chairman of the committee, who noted the nominee’s 10-year record on the federal bench and the 2,700 cases he helped decide.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the panel, said we “are not just evaluating a resume.”

She said she could not support Gorsuch, citing his rulings, views on voting rights and his legal counsel to the Bush administration on torture tactics in Iraq.

The chairman and ranking member set the tone for statements made by every member of the committee.

Gorsuch, 49, was confirmed by voice vote in 2006 to serve on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge has roots in Colorado and currently lives in Boulder.

The committee vote on the nominee follows four days of hearings. Gorsuch testified during three days. He was embraced by Republicans on the panel and grilled by Democrats about rulings that they said favored corporations and businesses over people.

Democrats also bristled at the nomination of Gorsuch to fill a vacancy that was held open during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Republicans refused to give Obama’s pick, appellate Judge Merrick Garland, a hearing.

“What a shameful stain on the proud history of this committee,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The Supreme Court vacancy was created when Justice Antonin Scalia died Feb. 13, 2016.

Democrats have vowed to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination, forcing Republicans, who hold a 52-48 majority, to get 60 votes to stop debate to hold an up-or-down vote.

Nevada’s two senators, Dean Heller, a Republican, and Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, have aligned with their respective party leaders.

Two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, have said they plan to join Republicans and support the nominee. Those two lawmakers come from states where Trump won the general election.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it is highly unlikely that the Republicans will get the 60 votes needed to end the filibuster.

Republicans are expected to trigger the “nuclear option,” a rule change that would allow them to end debate with a simple majority, vote on the nomination and seat Gorsuch on the high court by end of April.

The last time the nuclear option was triggered was in 2013 when then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., changed the rules to break Republican opposition to Obama’s lower court justices and administrative appointments.

Democrats left the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court justices and legislation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Democrats were forcing Republicans to change the rules on the filibuster for a Supreme Court nominee, a rule that has been in place since the 1940s. He said the harm to the Senate “is very real” and unnecessary because of Gorsuch’s qualifications.

“This will be the last person to face a filibuster,” Graham said. “It says more about the Senate than it does about Judge Gorsuch.”

But Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said rule changes are the result of Republican strategy under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block previous nominees to lower courts and refuse a hearing to Garland.

Durbin agreed with Graham that changing the rule would change the institution of the Senate.

“It breaks my heart to find us in this situation,” Durbin said.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said “we are at a historic moment in the Senate,” a destination that is the result of mistakes made by both parties, he said.

Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or gmartin@reviewjournal.com. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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