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Senate Showdown Over Supreme Court Nomination Gathers Steam


No one seems happy about what's happening in the U.S. Senate this week. Democrats have mustered enough votes to block President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court under current rules. But Republicans are determined to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed, and are expected to do away with the filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees. That would allow justices to be confirmed with a simple majority and largely eliminate the need for bipartisan cooperation when it comes to filling High Court vacancies.

Here's Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker.


BOB CORKER: What's happened here is each side of the aisle says, well, if they were in charge, this is what they would do. And, you know, since I've been here over the last decade, it's been a spiral to the bottom.

MARTIN: And while no one seems happy about where things are headed, no one seems willing to avoid this showdown either. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is on the line now. Good morning, Mara.


MARTIN: Are there any winners in this situation?

LIASSON: Well, Neil Gorsuch is a winner. He's going...

MARTIN: (Laughter) Him, yeah.

LIASSON: ...To be getting on the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans are winners 'cause they're now in a position to cement a conservative majority on the court for a generation, assuming Donald Trump gets another SCOTUS opening to fill soon. I think there are also a lot of losers. You're hearing many senators say there are going to be more ideologically extreme judges once the nuclear option is triggered and it's no longer necessary to have 60 votes, no minority party buy-in at all.

But it also suggests that if we ever have divided government again, it's a question whether an opposition Congress will ever approve any nominee of a president of the other party 'cause remember during the campaign, Republican senators Richard Burr and Ted Cruz and even John McCain all suggested that if they retained the majority and Hillary Clinton was the president, they would refuse to confirm any of her Supreme Court nominations for eight years, if necessary.

MARTIN: So if they change this rule, use this so-called nuclear option, which, as you said, has consequences for both parties, why are Democrats insisting on filibustering when Gorsuch is going to be confirmed no matter what?

LIASSON: I think that they feel this was going to be inevitable. The nuclear option was going to be triggered whether it was on this nomination or the next one. And, you know, the Senate has been chipping away at these norms and restraints and customs like the filibuster for quite some time. You know, when the Democrats were in the majority, they got rid of the filibuster for lower court nominations after Republicans blocked all of Obama's nominees to the federal courts.

And then when Republicans got into the majority, they refused to consider Merrick Garland for a hearing or a vote. So it is worth pointing out that although both sides have done this, the Republicans have done it more and more effectively. During the Obama administration, the filibuster was used more than during any other administration.

MARTIN: OK, so let's talk more about the implications if this thing gets triggered, this nuclear option. The simple explanation for what it could mean for the court is more extreme justices. What could it mean for the Senate itself?

LIASSON: Well, there are a lot of dire predictions. John McCain said yesterday this is the beginning of the end of the Senate as we know it. And the big question now is that the filibuster looks like it's going to be gone for all judicial nominations. Will the legislative filibuster be the next casualty? And that would certainly make the Senate more like the House, where the minority has hardly any power at all.

Now, there are some reasons that senators might still restrain themselves from going that far because, of course, the shoe could be on the other foot. At some point, Republicans could be in the minority.


LIASSON: But they're not too worried about that right now.

MARTIN: So, Mara, it seems like we're always talking about how things are getting more divided in this country, more partisan, there's more gridlock. But this does feel different in some way.

LIASSON: Well, it's another - it's a big step on the road to tribal politics. You know, all those checks and balances that were set up to force bipartisanship and prevent simple majoritarianism only work if people want them to. And even though you had all those senators standing up and expressing sadness yesterday, they aren't willing to do anything about it. And I guess if trust in all American institutions is at an all-time low, including the Supreme Court and the Congress, this will make it even worse.

And that's not good for American democracy.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.