WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats elevated their attacks against President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Wednesday, portraying him as an ally of the powerful and an enemy of the weak as an explosive showdown loomed on the Senate floor. Republicans defended Judge Neil Gorsuch, accusing Democrats of trying to block him out of frustration over Trump's election victory.
"Democrats would filibuster Ruth Bader Ginsburg if President Donald Trump nominated her," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., naming one of the more liberal sitting justices. "There is simply no principled reason to oppose this exceptional, exceptional Supreme Court nominee."
Democrats begged to differ, returning again and again to McConnell's decision last year to deny consideration to then-President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was ignored for nearly a year by Senate Republicans after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Instead McConnell kept Scalia's seat open, a calculation that is now paying off hugely for Republicans and Trump, who will be able to claim the biggest victory of his presidency to date if Gorsuch is confirmed on Friday as expected.
"For the first time in history, we are considering a nominee for a stolen Supreme Court seat, and that alone should be reason for everyone who cares about this institution to turn down this nominee," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said on the Senate floor as he wrapped up a 15-and-a-half-hour overnight talk-a-thon to underscore his party's opposition to Gorsuch. "This is an extreme nominee from the far right who doesn't believe in the fundamental vision of 'We the People.'"
First, though, looms showdown votes Thursday, when 44 Democrats and independents intend to try to block Gorsuch by denying Republicans the 60 votes needed to proceed to final passage. McConnell and Republicans intend to respond by unilaterally changing Senate rules to remove the 60-vote filibuster requirement for Gorsuch and all future Supreme Court nominees, reducing it to a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
The pending developments prompted much hand-wringing from senators on both sides of the aisle about the future of the Senate as a bipartisan and deliberative body, though they themselves were in position to prevent it from happening and failed to do so.
Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said roughly 10 senators of both parties worked over the weekend to come up with a deal to stave off the so-called "nuclear option," as the rules change is known, but couldn't come to agreement. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware was at the centre of talks on the Democratic side. In 2005, a bipartisan deal headed off GOP plans to remove the filibuster barrier for lower-court nominees, although in 2013 Democrats took the step instead, leaving the filibuster in place only for Supreme Court justices.
With Trump in the White House and political polarization at an extreme, senators working toward a compromise did not appear to have much support from leadership and weren't able to finalize a deal.
"We just couldn't get there," Collins said.
And so, with the fight over Gorsuch, the Senate is on the verge of killing off the Supreme Court filibuster, the one remaining vestige of bipartisanship on presidential appointments. For now the filibuster barrier on legislation will remain, though many fear it could be the next to go.
"I fear that someday we will regret what we are about to do. In fact, I am confident we will," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It is imperative we have a functioning Senate where the rights of the minority are protected regardless of which party is in power at the time."
Nonetheless, McCain was prepared to vote with McConnell on the rules change, saying he felt he had no choice.
Gorsuch now counts 55 supporters in the Senate: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won last November — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, has said he will not join in the filibuster against Gorsuch but has not said how he will vote on confirmation.
Merkley's lengthy speech, while not technically a filibuster because it did not prevent or delay a planned vote, did qualify as the eighth-longest floor speech in Senate history at 15 hours and 27 minutes, according to the Senate historical office.
Merkley devoted part of his floor remarks to highlighting plagiarism charges against Gorsuch that surfaced at the last minute in documents provided to The Associated Press and other news organizations, showing similarities between Gorsuch's writings about assisted suicide and earlier pieces by other authors he did not credit. Merkley questioned whether Republicans were moving quickly to end debate on Gorsuch's nomination "before that information becomes public."
The White House pushed back at the allegations, which spokesman Steven Cheung dismissed as a "baseless, last-second smear" that had been discredited and refuted.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Mary Clare Jalonick and Jill Colvin contributed.
Erica Werner, The Associated Press