WASHINGTON – The Senate began debate Tuesday on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch with Republicans decrying the possibility of a filibuster and Democrats all but promising to deliver one.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, was one of many Republicans urging that Gorsuch’s nomination be allowed “an up-or-down vote.”
“There is absolutely no justification for filibustering a highly qualified Supreme Court nominee put forward by a president that was just elected – it’s unprecedented,” Flake said in comments on the Senate floor late Monday.
His comments came just hours after the Senate Judiciary Committee split down party lines to advance Gorsuch’s nomination, 11-9, to the full Senate after hours of highly partisan debate.
“I will not, I cannot support advancing this nomination,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.
Democrats on the committee said repeatedly that they were troubled by what they saw as evasive answers from Gorsuch, a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and by rulings that they said sided too often with corporate interests.
But Republicans said President Donald Trump’s choice to fill the seat left empty by the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia is eminently qualified and should be approved.
“I will vote for him with a very clear conscience, for whatever that matters,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
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Flake, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said after the hearing that Gorsuch is “a great man and a great judge, I was proud to support him in committee and look forward to supporting him on the floor of the Senate.”
But when – or if – that floor vote comes is the question.
Senators began debating the nomination Tuesday morning, and by the evening Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had filed a motion for cloture – a motion to cut off debate and call for a vote.
But the vote on that motion will not come before Thursday, and it requires 60 senators to pass. If it does not pass, debate can continue indefinitely.
Democrats are still upset over the Republican majority’s refusal to even give a hearing to Judge Merrick Garland, who was nominated by President Barack Obama last March to fill Scalia’s seat on the court. That nomination was withdrawn by Trump and replaced with Gorsuch’s nomination.
If Republicans cannot muster the 60 votes needed to cut off a Democratic filibuster and get a vote, Senate leaders have threatened to change the rules and require only a simple majority to cut off debate – what critics are calling “the nuclear option.”
Graham was already calling for the nuclear option on Monday.
“I’m going to vote to change the rules because I’m not going to be part of a Senate where Democrats get their judges and Republicans can never get theirs,” Graham said.
Flake said he hopes it does not come to that.
“I encourage all of my colleagues to give him fair consideration and to advance his nomination to an up-or-down vote,” he said Monday night. “I will be voting to confirm him, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.”