WASHINGTON — With Judge Neil Gorsuch on the verge of confirmation to the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump — the first truly outsider president in recent memory — is nearing his first major legislative achievement. It will be a victory for the insiders.
If Gorsuch, a well-respected, conservative legal star with a traditional background, wins approval as expected on Friday it will be testament to the power of well-organized establishment Republican forces and a reminder of the ability of judicial fights to unite Republicans.
Gorsuch's confirmation required Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to eliminate the 60-vote threshold, dubbed the "nuclear option," to ensure approval with a simple majority. But after weeks of wrangling in the House over a plan to repeal and replace the so-called Obamacare law, the confirmation battle amounts to a badly needed triumph for Trump.
"This is a big win and it feels good to get this win," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss. "The nuances of a bill containing a myriad of provisions is totally different, totally different. But I do think the president can prevail with a good repeal-and-replace bill if he'll put the weight of his credibility and office behind the effort, and I think he's prepared to do that."
To be sure, a Supreme Court battle is far different from a complicated policy fight involving health care, which covers one-fifth of the nation's economy and has been a central political fight since President Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009.
But that doesn't mean it was a walk in the park.
In some ways, conservative outside groups were preparing for Gorsuch's nomination process for months. His name first surfaced as a potential Supreme Court pick in late September when Trump included him on a list of 21 possible successors to the late Justice Antonin Scalia. (Gorsuch was not on an initial list of potential justices he released in May 2016.)
That heads-up gave outside groups like the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation time to review the potential jurists and create buy-in for Republicans once Trump made his choice. When Trump named Gorsuch in late January, the choice quickly won praise from groups like the Club for Growth, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity and the National Rifle Association.
"Gorsuch is somebody who pretty much everyone on the right wants to vote for and wants to support. We were starting with a good product," said Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America, one of several conservative groups that did not back the president's health care law. "On health care, they kind of started with an egg and were surprised to find that the whole experience has been frustrating."
For a new administration, the dual legislative battles over Gorsuch and health care have coincided with an internal struggle between the anti-establishment forces that helped propel Trump to the White House and establishment figures seeking to consolidate power.
The tensions spilled out into public this week when Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and a proponent of take-no-prisoners politics, lost his seat on the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, a group of high-ranking officials who meet to discuss pressing national security needs.
Bannon's addition to the NSC had sparked criticism that it was inappropriate for the political adviser to play a role in national security matters. His departure suggested reduced influence and rising tensions amid Trump's West Wing staff, particularly between Bannon and a more moderate group led by Trump's senior adviser and powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The two senior aides have clashed of late, with Kushner holding Bannon responsible for the controversies surrounding the failures of the president's travel ban and the health care bill. Bannon, meanwhile, believes the president's son-in-law is trying to shift away from the populist rhetoric he believes won the White House, according to associates of the two men who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
This week, Vice-President Mike Pence, a solid member of the establishment wing of the White House, tried to revive the health care bill, working with the bloc of hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus to find a compromise that could pass the Republican-led House. That effort came after Trump, seizing his anti-establishment role, threatened to work to unseat conservative Republicans who did not line up behind him.
Republican lawmakers left for Easter recess with no deal, but have vowed to press on.
Gorsuch's success — and health care's failure — shines a light on the ability of judicial battles to energize Republicans, who have long railed against judicial overreach and courts acting in ways reserved for the legislative branch.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the importance of McConnell's decision to refuse to consider Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland and ability to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court picks could not be overstated. He said Gorsuch's selection managed to unite Republicans and pave the way for a more conservative court.
"Some people will try to say this makes the win less," Schlapp said of the use of the nuclear option. "It makes the win bigger because it makes the next pick even easier to confirm."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ken Thomas has covered the White House and national politics for The Associated Press since 2011.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner in Washington and Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.
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Ken Thomas, The Associated Press