McConnell's ‘Nuclear Option’ Gets Trump Gorsuch at a Big Price

  • Lawmakers once again choose partisanship over compromise
  • Trump shows he can no more change Washington than predecessors

GOP Launches 'Nuclear Option' to Confirm Judge Gorsuch

The decision by Senate Republicans to effectively end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees is called the nuclear option for a reason: it will likely destroy what little comity and bipartisanship remain in Washington.

The move raises the prospect of permanent government gridlock, in an era of coarsened politics and increasingly influential interest groups who demand ideological purity. The ambitions of President Donald Trump, whose legislative agenda was already tenuous, may be further constrained. Even Republicans who voted with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed regret.

“I guarantee you, just as the Democrats regretted what Harry Reid did, we will regret doing this,” Senator John McCain of Arizona told reporters. He was referring to the now-retired Democratic leader’s decision in 2013, when his party held the Senate majority, to end the filibuster for lower-court and executive-branch nominees.

And yet he voted for it anyway. Given the opportunity to step back from the brink of partisanship, lawmakers once again opted to leap over the precipice.

Trump’s Victory

“The dark deed is done,” Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, said on Twitter. “McConnell has just put a knife into the heart of our We the People republic.”

Hyperbole aside, the immediate result of the rule change -- which allows a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation to proceed with a mere majority of votes instead of 60 -- will likely be Trump’s first legislative accomplishment. Neil Gorsuch, his nominee for the Supreme Court, is expected to be confirmed as soon as Friday.

Why the Supreme Court’s Approval Rating is Sliding

Source: Bloomberg

Gorsuch will secure an additional right-leaning vote on the high court, probably for decades -- undeniably a triumph for the new president and his party. But the price is high.

The long-term implication of the rule change is a further erosion of the Senate’s historic role as the legislative cooling saucer -- a place where tradition and careful deliberation are supposed to ease the partisan fervor on legislation sent from the House.

Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, said her vote came with regret.

“It will lower any restraint on any president who wants to choose someone who is much more ideological than Neil Gorsuch is,” Collins said, calling the day “sad for the Senate as an institution and I think it’s bad for the court as well.”

Any concerns about preserving the hallowed traditions of the Senate, though, were secondary to achieving a short-term political win.

Shared Blame

The blame does not fall entirely on Republicans. More than 40 Democrats filibustered Gorsuch despite little question that he was qualified for the job, an indication of their party’s lingering bitterness over Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland last year and an entrenched hostility toward a president elected despite losing the popular vote.

The opening days of a new administration are traditionally the most productive window for legislative accomplishment, as presidents enter office supplied with political capital and a willingness to spend it. But Thursday’s historic move made clear that lawmakers on both sides are geared for confrontation and face little pressure to find compromises.

Both sides agree that November’s election was an explicit referendum on the future of the Supreme Court. But if most Democrats found no reason to cooperate on Gorsuch’s nomination, there seems little hope for deal-making on an overhaul of the tax code, changes to Obamacare or Trump’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure construction plan.

McConnell’s deployment of the nuclear option also tars Trump’s personal brand as an outsider who would cut the fever of partisanship gripping the city and unite the nation -- the third president in a row to make such lofty promises, only to be swiftly brought back down to Earth early in his term.

Trump’s Loss

Trump’s business acumen has turned out to be no more effective an antidote for gridlock than Obama’s post-partisan coalition or George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Only this time, the failure became evident faster and more abruptly than his predecessors.

Ironically, the limited scope of McConnell’s move may hurt, not help, prospects for future legislation.

Mitch McConnell

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

McConnell, a 32-year veteran of the Senate, pledged that the filibuster would remain available to the minority on legislation as long as he is majority leader. He said there was "no sentiment" among Senate Republicans for eliminating it altogether, despite Democrats being "the biggest beneficiary of that right now."

For one, many Republicans recognize that when Democrats eventually re-take the Senate, losing the filibuster would backfire on the GOP as liberals use the rule to their own advantage.

But in a world where political norm after political norm has fallen, the question seems to be not whether the filibuster will eventually be eliminated altogether, but what legislative priority Trump will consider so important to prevail on McConnell to end it for good.

Republicans would enjoy a clearer path to pursue their short-term policy goals, including a replacement for Obamacare. Already they must grapple with the president’s historically low approval ratings, meaning that the party is likely near the floor of its popularity with voters. It’s hard to see how a more significant disruption of the Senate’s arcane rules -- little understood within Washington, let alone outside the Beltway -- would make matters worse.

Their next hurdle is a spending bill required by April 28 to keep the government’s lights on. As last month’s debacle over the House Republican health-care bill demonstrated, Republican leaders have struggled to balance the competing interests of moderates and conservatives in their caucus.

That means they’re likely to need Democrats to get the spending bill to Trump’s desk. After scorching the Earth to get Gorsuch on the court, that prospect is dimmer than ever -- so long as the legislative filibuster remains available.

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