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Bye-Bye, SCOTUS Filibuster! Republicans Change Rules to Advance Gorsuch

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Republicans voted to amend Senate procedural rules, effectively erasing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.

All fifty-two Republican senators voted to invoke the so-called “nuclear option,” after Democrats managed to whip the 41 votes they needed to successfully obstruct the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.

Now, only a simple majority is required to advance Supreme Court nominees through the Senate, starting with Gorsuch. President Trump’s Supreme Court pick is expected to be confirmed on Friday.

The threshold for approval had previously been 60 votes—the amount of support needed to end debate on a matter before the Senate, through the passage of a cloture motion.

“We need to restore the norms and traditions of the Senate to get past this partisan filibuster,” claimed Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the body’s Majority Leader.

The likely impact of the vote will almost certainly be the opposite.

Senate rules hinge on precedent, based on “norms and traditions.” As The New York Times noted Wednesday, many observers expect the Senate’s 60-vote threshold on all legislation to fall by the wayside next.

The supermajoritarian threshold has given much more power to each individual senator, and its erosion diminishes the outsized authority of voters from low-population states. It has been seen as a key feature of the Upper House, and a significant check on the Senate majority’s power.

In 2013, the filibuster was weakened, when Democrats “nuked” it, for non-Supreme Court nominees. Then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said the procedural vote was needed, after Republicans blocked President Obama’s judicial nominees, leaving nearly 100 vacancies on federal courts.

After Thursday’s historic vote, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn claimed that Republicans were restoring a status quo that had been in existence before the administration of George W. Bush. Cornyn said that Democrats violated Senate tradition during the Bush years by attempting to obstruct judicial nominees.

Those claims were decried, however, months ago—when Republicans were blocking Merrick Garland and other Obama-nominated judges at an unprecedented clip.

In the fall of 2016, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) pointed out that the Democratic-controlled Senate ushered ten Bush nominees through the judicial confirmation process, in September 2008 alone. Those approvals reduced judicial vacancies to 34, “roughly one-third of the 90 that exist today,” Leahy’s staff said.

“There is no good reason we cannot do for these nominees this September what I did for President Bush’s judicial nominees eight years ago,” the lawmaker noted. Leahy was the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 2001 until January.

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Since 2010, Sam Knight's work has appeared in Truthout, Washington Monthly, Salon, Mondoweiss, Alternet, In These Times, The Reykjavik Grapevine and The Nation. In 2012, he worked as a producer for The Alyona Show on RT. He has written extensively about political movements that emerged in Iceland after the 2008 financial collapse, and is currently working on a book about the subject.

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