President Trump urged Senate Republican leaders Wednesday to be prepared to tear up the rules of the Senate and “go nuclear” if Democrats try to block his Supreme Court nominee from winning confirmation — complicating the beginning of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s delicate courtship of the lawmakers who will decide his fate.
As Gorsuch began a series of meetings on Capitol Hill, Trump said at the White House that if the gridlock of recent years persists in the Senate, Republicans should move to change the rules of the chamber to permit the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee with a simple majority vote.
“I would say, ‘If you can, Mitch, go nuclear,’ ” Trump said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Because that would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was put up to that neglect. I would say it’s up to Mitch, but I would say, ‘Go for it.’ ”
Some Democrats are indeed pushing to block Gorsuch, citing not only Republicans’ refusal last year to move ahead with then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, but also their concern about the constitutionality of Trump’s travel ban for refugees and foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
But coming on a day when some key Democratic senators from conservative states signaled openness to voting for Gorsuch, Trump’s words threw a divisive wrench into efforts to improve bipartisan relations, which have sunk to historically low levels in Congress. His comments echoed previous remarks nudging McConnell to abandon long-standing Senate rules that the Republican leader does not take lightly.
Republican leaders are hopeful they can secure the eight crossover votes they would need to overcome Democratic resistance without changing Senate rules, which can require a 60-vote majority for Supreme Court confirmations.
Many Republican senators sought to distance themselves from Trump’s talk about going nuclear.
“I don’t think it’s going to be necessary,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), McConnell’s top deputy.
“It’d be better to let it cool for a while,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).
Cornyn and Hatch were among the senators Gorsuch met with on his whirlwind first day. The U.S. court of appeals judge arrived on the Senate side of the Capitol accompanied by Vice President Pence and a team of aides including former senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who recently served in the Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a centrist Democrat who met with Gorsuch on Wednesday, said the nuclear option is “wrong.”
“It diminishes the true balance and effectiveness of the Senate,” said Manchin, who remains open to voting for Gorsuch.
Other Democrats were more hostile to the nominee. In a speech on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Gorsuch of favoring corporate interests over regular people and injecting a conservative ideology into his legal decisions.
“I have very serious doubts that Judge Neil Gorsuch is up to the job,” said Schumer, who has committed to forcing Gorsuch to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle before getting to a final up-or-down vote.
The White House asked that Gorsuch meet with Schumer, but aides said he declined in order to learn more first about the nominee’s record.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a potential swing vote, said he is “quite concerned” about Gorsuch’s views on voting rights and campaign finance laws.
It remains unclear whether Senate Democrats will be able to band together to stop Gorsuch. Manchin and a handful of other centrist Democrats are up for reelection in states that Trump won easily. Voting for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could endear them to some of the many Republican voters in their states.
“I’m not counting votes, and I can’t give you any insight on that,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who calls the spot on the court Gorsuch is trying to fill a “stolen seat,” a reference to Obama’s failed Garland nomination.
Gorsuch’s first call after being nominated was to Garland, “out of respect,” his spokesman Ron Bonjean said Wednesday.
Senate Republicans offered strong praise for Gorsuch, whom they have sought to label as “mainstream,” in an effort to counter Democratic criticism.
“This is a judge who’s known for deciding cases based on how the law is actually written, not how he wishes it were written, even when it leads to results that conflict with his own political beliefs,” McConnell argued in a Senate floor speech.
By urging McConnell and his fellow Republicans to “go nuclear,” Trump was referring to the common name for a game plan to circumvent filibusters. The “nuclear option” calls for breaking the Senate’s long-standing tradition of requiring a two-thirds majority to change the chamber’s rules. The rule requiring a 60-vote majority to approve Gorsuch could be changed with a simple-majority vote — and then Republicans would have the votes to approve his nomination.
“I think it would be a mistake to go to a simple majority,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), one of the Democrats whom Republicans are targeting to break ranks and support Gorsuch.
“I’m going to bring him in and interview him,” Tester said of Gorsuch. “I’m going to look at his decisions, going to determine whether he understands the Constitution, rural America, women’s rights and all that stuff. I’ve read a few decisions — the one decision on end of life distresses me, but I want to look at more than just that.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) said he also will study Gorsuch’s legal opinions and evaluate his temperament.
Unlike Schumer and Merkley, Coons didn’t endorse forcing Gorsuch to face a 60-vote threshold for advancement. But he acknowledged that it probably is the bar Gorsuch will have to clear.
After his morning meeting with McConnell, Pence walked Gorsuch around the Capitol, stopping in the Rotunda, where he took a picture with high school students who work as Senate pages. Gorsuch, who grew up in Colorado and the District of Columbia , once served as a page, said an adult supervisor of the pages.
On his way out of the Rotunda, a group of eighth-grade girls from the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda waved and said “congratulations” to him. He shook one of their hands and said: “Thank you very much. Someday you’ll be doing this.”
Gorsuch is expected to hold many more meetings with senators over the next several weeks. He will have to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in closely watched hearings where Democrats are expected to grill him over his record and his views on a range of hot-button issues.
In the meantime, both Republican and Democratic senators seem to agree on at least one thing: No one can predict what the president is going to say or do to suddenly upend the debate over Gorsuch — or other pressing matters.
“You think you’re going to tell Mr. Trump he’s wrong on something? The bottom line is, he’s going to speak up what he believes,” Manchin said.