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Nuclear Option Deployed in Quiet Senate Chamber

Gravity of situation tempers reactions amid historic moment

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is giving his caucus a wide berth in discussing health insurance legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is giving his caucus a wide berth in discussing health insurance legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Thursday was a day for the Senate history books, but the ultimate change of the chamber’s rules for ending debate on Supreme Court justices was met with a quiet resignation.

Just after 12:30 p.m., the Senate clerk read the tally: 52 in the negative, 48 in the affirmative, overruling the presiding officer’s ruling that cloture, or ending debate, on Supreme Court justices required 60 votes.

No one cheered or booed. Senators just sat quietly at their desks after the clerk read the final tally. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looked straight ahead toward the dais. Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer grimaced and looked down. 

The Senate had deployed the so-called nuclear option again: in effect changing the Senate rules with a majority vote, rather than the typical two-thirds of support. Former Democratic leader Harry Reid deployed virtually the same tactic in 2013 amid Republican filibusters of former President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees. 

A small group of senators had attempted to reach a deal to avert the nuclear option, which McConnell signaled he would use since Democrats pledged to filibuster President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch. 

Sens. Susan Collins and Chris Coons were two lawmakers leading the effort. Collins, a moderate Maine Republican, is seen as a deal-maker while Coons, a Delaware Democrat, has a longstanding respect for the nomination process. He holds the Senate seat formerly held by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Coons interned for the Judiciary Committee’s nominations unit when Biden was the chairman.

But, on Wednesday, Collins and Coons indicated distrust on both sides of the aisle meant they couldn’t reach a deal.

Collins said roughly 10 senators were involved in discussions, but “we just couldn’t get there.” Senators talked last week and over the weekend. 

She drafted the Republican proposal, and Coons drafted the Democratic proposal, but she declined to provide specifics on those offers. 

Coons and Collins were both spotted talking to colleagues on the Senate floor throughout the nearly two-hour series of votes Thursday.

But with the writing already on the wall, Collins may not have just been trying to avert the nuclear option.

She carried a green file folder in her hand as she approached Republicans and Democrats, handing over a pen as willing senators signed the piece of paper inside.

On Wednesday, Collins said she would be spearheading a letter to the two party leaders encouraging them to leave the cloture threshold on legislation intact. So it’s possible she was collecting signatures for that effort.

Schumer also attempted to hold up the nuclear option with procedural motions to delay consideration of the nomination until the end of April and to adjourn the chamber until 5 p.m. Both motions failed.

Senators then deployed the nuclear option, and proceeded to end debate on Gorsuch, which only required a majority vote. With that, Gorsuch is headed toward a Friday confirmation vote, where the GOP majority will propel him to a seat on the high court.

After senators successfully ended debate, McConnell turned to high-five his chief of staff Sharon Soderstrom and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.

Schumer sat for a moment, and then walked back into the Democratic cloakroom, where his caucus was having a catered lunch.

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