Democrats forced the showdown by amassing 44 votes in opposition to granting Gorsuch a final up-or-down vote, denying him the 60 needed to end a filibuster. In press conferences and floor statements, they argued that Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy fell outside the political mainstream and said they could not abide Trump reconstituting a conservative majority on the high court for decades to come. Gorsuch, they said, had further turned them off by his evasive answers at his confirmation hearings and what some Democrats considered a condescending tone.
But the Democratic opposition ultimately was as much about Merrick Garland as it was about Neil Gorsuch. They acted both in response to pressure from their party’s base and their own fury at McConnell’s decision last year to deny Garland so much as a hearing after former President Barack Obama nominated him in the wake of Scalia’s sudden death 14 months ago.
In the days leading up to Thursday’s vote, Minority Leader Charles Schumer implored McConnell and Senate Republicans to “step back from the brink” and uphold the tradition of the filibuster by forcing Trump to name a new, consensus nominee.
“Mr. President, the 60-vote bar in the Senate is the guardrail of our democracy,” he said in a floor speech before the vote. “When our body politic is veering too far to the right or to the left, the answer is not to dismantle the guard rails and go over the cliff, but to turn the wheel back toward the middle. The answer is not to undo the guardrails—the rules—it’s to steer back to the middle and get a more mainstream candidate.”
Yet it was Schumer’s party that began to chip away at the filibuster four years ago, when under then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrats eliminated the 60-vote threshold for all executive-branch positions and judicial nominees below the Supreme Court. While they exempted the Supreme Court at the time, there was little doubt that had Hillary Clinton won the presidency with a Democratic Senate majority, the party would have changed the rules in the face of a similar Republican filibuster.
There was similarly little doubt about what McConnell would do. He vowed from the outset that Gorsuch would be confirmed and accused Democrats of breaking with Senate precedent with a first-ever partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. (A collection of both Democrats and Republicans successfully blocked Abe Fortas’s elevation to chief justice in 1968.)
The only question in recent days was whether all 52 Republicans, including its longest-serving guardians of Senate tradition, would stick with McConnell and change the rules. Senator John McCain of Arizona publicly agonized over the move but said the Democratic filibuster had left him no choice. Centrist GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine convened last-minute talks over a deal to confirm Gorsuch while preserving the filibuster for future Supreme Court nominations. But when those failed, she, too, voted with her party.