Filibuster looms as Senate weighs Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch
Judge Neil Gorsuch speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, after President Donald Trump announced Gorsuch as his nominee for the Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR MEDIA) — Conservative nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court don’t come more quintessential than Neil Gorsuch.

The 49-year-old federal appeals court judge from Colorado is a child of privilege, Harvard Law School graduate and Oxford alumnus.

Following law school, Gorsuch clerked for Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Byron White, where he drew praise for his sharp mind and meticulous research.

When he was 39 years old, Gorsuch, a husband and father of two girls, was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate to sit on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has distinguished himself as a Justice Antonin Scalia imprint and reliable conservative.

Political calculations prevail

Any Republican president could have — and very well would have — made the Gorsuch pick.

Following President Donald Trump’s calamitous first 10 days in office, his selection of an establishment favorite was downright delightful to many party faithful.

“I think the president made an outstanding appointment,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared upon meeting Gorsuch on Wednesday. “We’re all thrilled and looking forward to getting the confirmation process started.”

It’s possible that the president, not known for chess-playing patience, is taking the long view here, selecting a more palatable justice for now and going for broke at a later date if the court’s swing justice, 80-year-old Kennedy, retires during his tenure.

Democrats would certainly be down for a street fight at that point, knowing critical issues decided by Kennedy — like abortion and affirmative action — hang in the balance.

Democrats ponder opposition tactics

Several Democrats have called Gorsuch’s nod a “stolen seat” since it sat vacant for nearly a year as Republicans blocked an eminently qualified nominee, DC Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland, chosen by outgoing President Barack Obama. A few have threatened to stonewall the nomination, while others argue it should move forward in spite of ideological differences.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted that “Gorsuch put corps over workers, been hostile toward women’s rights & been an ideolog,” and that he’s “skeptical that he can be a strong, independent Justice.”

As Gorsuch mingled with senators in their offices across the street, Schumer struck a tough stance on the Senate floor, saying, “There will be 60 votes [required] for confirmation. Any one member can require it. Many Democrats already have. And it is the right thing to do.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, promised the nominee a “thorough and fair review,” but echoed Schumer’s concerns that Gorsuch is out of step with SCOTUS precedent on women’s reproductive rights.

Still other Democrats, many of whom face 2018 re-election battles in red states, want to see the process move ahead even if they oppose the nominee.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is one such senator. He has insisted that, for the good of the party and American democracy, Dems would do well to avoid a full-scale fight, saying, “If you want the third branch of government to work, then you’ve got to have a nine-member Supreme Court.”

Filibuster possibility looms

The Gorsuch nomination must pass through several Senate checkpoints before it’s fully cleared, requiring the cooperation of at least some Dems along the way.

First, the GOP-controlled Judiciary Committee will invite Gorsuch to appear for confirmation hearings where he will be peppered with questions about his judicial record and philosophy. If tradition holds, he’ll use rhetorical spin moves to avoid giving many, if any, specifics.

Once a simple Judiciary Committee majority (requiring only Republican support) approves the nomination, Gorsuch’s nomination then moves to the Senate floor for debate and a vote.

Vote 1

First — and read closely here — there’s a vote to allow a vote. This is called “invoking cloture.”

This is when Democrats can launch a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome.

Since Republicans hold 52 seats, they will need eight Democrats to join them in dispensing with the filibuster and moving to allow the up-or-down vote.

Vote 2

The actual vote to confirm Gorsuch requires a simple 51-vote majority, an easy lift for the GOP.

If there’s a total impasse due to Democratic obstruction, 51 Republicans can vote to use the “nuclear option,” which would change Senate rules, bypass the filibuster and allow GOP members to confirm Gorsuch with just 51 votes.

On Wednesday, Trump encouraged this option, saying, “If you can, Mitch (McConnell), go nuclear.”

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @Chance Seales