Senate Republicans, in a history making move Tuesday, changed the rules to pave the way for Judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation Friday.
The procedural move used by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been referred to as "going nuclear," but what does that mean?
The term was coined by former GOP Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in 2003—during a fight over former President George W. Bush’s nominees, and it’s intended to sound dire—because at that time both parties viewed it as extreme and inconceivable; senators figuratively blowing up the rules.
Lott and the Republican majority he led more than a decade ago didn’t change the rules, thanks in part to a compromise brokered by the “Gang of Eight” – a group of long-serving senators from both parties who reach an agreement on how President Bush’s nominees would be vetted.
The nuclear option was used for the first time in 2013 by Democrats, invoked by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said at the time: “the American people believe the Senate is broken.”
Reid changed the rules to allow President Obama’s cabinet appointments and lower court judges to be sent to the Senate floor with a simple majority, citing unprecedented obstruction from Republicans.
So where does the obstruction come from? That’s called the filibuster -- when one or more senators speak for hours or days to try and delay or block a vote.
Ending that debate, or what’s procedurally called “invoking cloture,” takes a super-majority: 60 of the 100 senators, meaning nominees need bipartisan support since, currently, the Senate Republicans have just 52 seats.
Another bit of history: It used to take an even larger super majority end debate – 67 of 100 senators. That rule was changed in 1975 to cut down on the number of filibusters.
The groundwork was laid decades ago for this moment. But “going nuclear” to approve a Supreme Court nominee’s lifetime appointment is unprecedented; even Democrats vowed to keep the filibuster in place for high court nominations when they rewrote the rules for lower-level appointments.
Taking it a step further would be applying it to legislation, not just presidential appointments, and there’s some talk that could be next.
“That would be the end of the Senate,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, during a floor speech Thursday, referring to the legislative filibuster.
“The Senate is going down a very dark path here,” Graham continued.
"We didn’t want to change the rules," Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, told KING 5.
"I think the Senate has been a more deliberative body, and I would just encourage us to go back to the kinds of discussions with White House and Senators about judicial nominations."
"This era of new heightened polarization in our politics, and it’s translated over the United States Senate made this move inevitable," said NBC senior political editor Mark Murray. "There are a lot of longtime senators, Republicans and Democrats who are very sad about this development, but it seemed like it was in the inevitable move whether you had a Democrat in the White House, or a Republican."
However, for now, Senators across both sides have expressed hesitation to take the "nuclear option" a step further and apply it to the legislative filibuster.
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