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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tomorrow We May See The Nuclear Option Explode Over The Senate

Senate Is Running Out of Compromises to Avoid ‘Nuclear Option’ in Gorsuch Vote

Expected showdown over changing a Senate rule was sparked by years of partisan feuds

Sen. John McCain said he reluctantly would join the GOP effort to alter Senate rules for confirming Supreme Court nominees.
Sen. John McCain said he reluctantly would join the GOP effort to alter Senate rules for confirming Supreme Court nominees. PHOTO: ERIC THAYER/REUTERS
WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of 14 U.S. senators in 2005 ended a bruising fight
 over federal judgeships with a compromise agreement that stopped GOP leaders from
 changing the chamber’s rules for confirming Supreme Court nominees.
Twelve years later, no such group has materialized to pull the Senate back from the
 brink in the battle over Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to 
the Supreme Court.
The country’s increasing political polarization in the intervening years has hardened 
the stances of both Senate Democrats, who said this week they had enough votes to
 mount a filibuster to block a vote on Judge Gorsuch under the current, decades-old 
rules, and Republicans, who are expected on Thursday to permanently change the
 chamber’s rules to confirm the GOP president’s pick.
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“The whole environment has dramatically changed,” said Sen. John McCain
 (R., Ariz.), a member of the so-called Gang of 14 that averted a rules change in 2005.

Related Video

Why It Matters That Gorsuch Confirmation Has Become a Partisan Brawl
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday approved along party lines Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and Democrats plan to filibuster the nomination on the Senate floor. WSJ's Gerald F. Seib explains why it matters the confirmation has become a partisan brawl. Photo: Getty
This week, Mr. McCain said he
 reluctantly would join most, if 
not all, Republicans in voting to 
alter the Senate’s rules so Supreme 
Court nominees could be confirmed
 with a simple majority, rather than
 the 60 votes currently needed.
One party moving unilaterally to
 change the rules is so contentious,
 it is referred to as “the nuclear option.” It would leave the minority party without any
 ability to block nominees and enable the president to cater to his or her party’s
 ideological extremes if the Senate is controlled by the same party.
“There’s a variety of reasons” for the shift, Mr. McCain said, “none of it good.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) said: “There’s no doubt we are moving into dangerous
 territory and we’re putting ourselves in a position where if you’re ever in the minority
 party, nobody has to talk to you.”
Tuesday evening, Sen. Jeff Merkley
 and spoke in protest of Judge
 Gorsuch’s nomination for more
 than 15 hours until Wednesday 
morning. During the night, 
Mr. Merkley railed against a 
rules change. The effort, though
 largely symbolic, is the closest
 approximation to a talking 
filibuster that can be found in the
 modern Senate.
Congressional experts said this week’s expected Senate showdown reflects a
 widening gulf on Capitol Hill between the prevailing Republican and Democratic
 ideologies, as well as fewer centrist lawmakers on either side of the aisle.
Before the 2010 election, there were 54 Blue Dog Democrats, a group of fiscally 
conservative House Democrats. This year, there are 18, including seven lawmakers 
who joined Congress this year.
Only three members of the Gang of 14 who took action in 2005 are still in Congress, 
after several lost re-election bids. In addition to Mr. McCain, they are: Sens. Susan 
Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans.
“The country is more divided, and it becomes very difficult to be someone who
 brokers a compromise,” Ms. Collins said on Tuesday. “People on the far left and
 the far right are energized and putting a lot of pressure on members.”
Republicans and Democrats are now further apart ideologically on most issues.
The parties used to have strong internal, regional divisions, particularly between
 Northern and Southern Democrats, said Keith Poole, a political-science professor
 at the University of Georgia. The party’s composition began to change after the 
passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, as Southern voters abandoned 
conservative Democrats for Republicans.
Mr. Poole, whose research has studied every congressional roll-call vote since 1789,
 said lawmakers’ votes now fall largely along only one spectrum ranging from
 liberal to conservative, rather than also dividing along regional lines, making 
bipartisan compromises harder to achieve.
“That’s what’s so distinctive and dangerous about the modern era,” Mr. Poole said.
 “This is the first time when the two parties do not have any regional divisions within
 them.”
The rise in partisanship has fed an escalating feud between the parties over how to 
use the Senate’s procedural tools to keep the other side in check.
Democrats, who were in the Senate minority when then-President George W. Bush,
 a Republican, was in office, sought to block a set of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees
 before the Gang of 14 agreement defused the tension.
“The parliamentary arms race between the parties has just continued since 2005,” said
 Sarah Binder, a senior fellow specializing in Congress at the Brookings Institution, a 
Washington-based think tank. “Minorities exploit the rules and majorities find new
 ways to restrict those new avenues.”
Later, when Republicans were in the minority, their opposition to some of the 
judicial and executive nominees advanced by then-President Barack Obama, a 
Democrat, helped push Democrats, led by former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, to 
change the chamber’s rules in 2013.
That change enabled the Senate to approve lower-court and executive nominees
 with a simple majority.
Then last year, Republicans, back in control of the Senate, declined to hold a 
hearing for Merrick Garland , Mr. Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court after 
Justice Antonin Scalia died. That stoked anger among liberal voters, who pressed
 Democratic senators this year to oppose Judge Gorsuch. The pressure from
 Democratic voters also was driven by resistance to Mr. Trump’s early actions in
 office, most notably on immigration.
Mr. Schatz of Hawaii said, “This is like a troubled relationship where everybody
 has a grievance and everybody has a little bit of a reason to be angry, but the
 question becomes, what do we do next?”
Still, lawmakers from both parties say there is no appetite now for changing the
 60-vote threshold for procedural hurdles on most legislation.
GOP lawmakers have said Mr. Reid’s decision to change the rules in 2013 paved 
the road for the expected rules change later this week.
The consequences of the 2013 rules change became evident this year, when 
Mr. Trump’s cabinet nominees, many of whom were contentious, cleared the 
Senate often along largely partisan lines.
None of Mr. Obama’s cabinet nominees in his first term garnered more than 31 
no votes.
By contrast, so far, six of Mr. Trump’s nominees have drawn more than 40 no votes,
 with four drawing 47 and one drawing 50—prompting the first ever tiebreaking vote
 by a vice president on a cabinet nomination.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) has found ways to skirt the
 current rules requiring most bills to secure 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles.
Before the health-care bill collapsed in the House, Republicans had hoped to advance
 the legislation without needing any Democratic votes in the Senate, by taking 
advantage of a procedural shortcut tied to the budget. Meanwhile, both chambers 
have been passing measures under the Congressional Review Act permitting them 
to roll back with a simple majority some rules passed by Mr. Obama’s administration.
Corrections & Amplifications 
 Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) is the Senate majority leader. An earlier version of this
 article incorrectly stated that he is the minority leader. (April 5, 2017)