Sign in / Join

What it means for the Senate to ‘go nuclear’ on Gorsuch nomination

The Senate is expected to alter longstanding practice for confirming Supreme Court nominees today as members vote on advancing the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

Republicans on their own do not have enough votes to end the floor debate on Gorsuch’s nomination, a move known as cloture, under the current rules requiring 60 votes. They accuse Democrats of unfairly obstructing a qualified jurist, while Democrats argue that Gorsuch is too radical for the court.

In order to bypass Democrats’ opposition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is expected to invoke the so-called “nuclear option,” which would allow him to change Senate precedent on voting on Supreme Court cloture votes from a 60-vote threshold to a simple majority of 51 votes.

“One way or the other, we will confirm Judge Gorsuch,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.

The actual proceedings that comprise the “nuclear option” are somewhat wonky. The majority leader and presiding officer, guided by parliamentary experts, go through a series of choreographed steps in which the leader suggests a change to the rules, the presiding officer challenges him, and then the leader calls a vote on a rules change, which only requires 51 votes.

After the rules change, the Senate will hold a second cloture vote, this one only requiring the simple majority. Once passed, that vote starts the clock on a 30-hour debate period, after which time the Senate votes on the Gorsuch confirmation itself, likely sometime Friday afternoon or evening.

McConnell’s invocation of the “nuclear option” is not the first time it’s been done. Then-leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, did the same thing in 2013 in response to what Democrats said was historic obstruction of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet nominees and lower-court judicial appointees. The margin was lowered on those votes, but the threshold for Supreme Court nominations went unchanged.