Senators lament killing the filibuster but do it anyway

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — When it came time Thursday morning for Democratic senators to force the hand of their Republican colleagues, compelling them to employ the “nuclear option” to blow up the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, Sen. Chris Coons looked physically ill.

As the senator from Delaware’s name was called during a vote to end debate on Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the high court, Coons grimaced before voting “no,” along with all of his Democratic colleagues. On the other side of the aisle, 52 Republicans proceeded to vote in favor of doing away with the judicial filibuster, clearing the way for Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority vote.

When the procedural dust had settled, Republicans had, in effect, successfully scrapped the 60-vote requirement for Supreme Court nominees.

“As I look around at what has just happened on the Senate floor, I am sick with regret,” Coons said.

But many Republicans didn’t seem inclined to celebrate.

“At the end of the day, you have a binary choice, and you have to make a decision as to which is worse. You’re either empowering a bad move by [New York Sen. Charles] Schumer or you’re empowering a bad move on the Republican side. Neither one of them are good options,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters afterward.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also voted to blow up the filibuster, despite telling Yahoo News on Wednesday that a shift to House of Representatives-style majority rule was “not democracy.”

On Thursday, a resigned McCain explained his vote by saying the move to end the filibuster “was not going to be stopped, whether I voted for it or against it.”

Opposing his own party’s contribution to the problem, McCain said, would have been “the right thing to do if it would have made a difference.”

If there was bipartisan agreement on the Senate floor Thursday, it was with the fact that the world’s most deliberative body had been made less so, and Coons drove that point home in a floor speech just after the vote by reading the words of former Vice President Adlai Stevenson.

“The rules governing this body are founded deep in human experience. They are the result of centuries of tireless effort to conserve, to render stable and secure the rights and liberties which have been achieved through conflict,” Coons said, quoting Stevenson.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaves the Senate chamber. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Coons admitted that he himself bore some of the blame for the dissolution of the filibuster on Supreme Court nominees and said he regretted voting in 2013 with then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to abolish the filibuster for lower court judges. He pledged to work with Republicans to try to preserve the filibuster for legislative votes, for which it now remains intact.

Republicans are leery of such pledges. Democrats, after all, took partisan warfare over Supreme Court nominees to new levels in the late ’80s and early ’90s during the hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Using the nuclear option in 2013, when Republicans filibustered many of then-President Obama’s judicial nominees, only upped the ante.

To be sure, not every senator in the chamber Thursday was equally upset about scrapping the judicial filibuster.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in remarks before the voting began, went through the many years of history that brought the Senate to this point and made clear that he and many other Republicans felt they had too often responded moderately to years of Democratic aggression.

“Could we have Borked [President Bill Clinton’s] nominees?” McConnell said. “Sure. But we didn’t. We resisted the calls for retribution.”

To hear McConnell tell it, the filibuster of Gorsuch was “the latest escalation in the left’s never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it will not stand.”

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., was even more pointed this week in expressing how determined he and other Republicans were not to be, in their view, taken advantage of again.

“Don’t expect to hear regret from me about it,” Cotton said Tuesday in a floor speech. “I am not racked with guilt. I am not anguished. I am really not even disappointed.”

“The Republicans are prepared to use a tool the Democrats first abused in 2013 to restore a 214-year old tradition the Democrats first broke in 2003, and we are supposed to feel guilty? Please,” Cotton said.

Democrats complained that Republicans have played filibuster games as well, no more so than a year ago, following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. McConnell enraged Democrats by refusing to even allow Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee for the high court, to receive a hearing, much less a vote.

Schumer called the move “even worse than a filibuster.”

Whatever version of events best explains Thursday’s decision to cast off a Senate tradition, it was clear that there was no shortage of blame to go around.

Coons said he and the other 99 senators could not evade responsibility for what they had just done. “We sometimes talk about the dysfunction of this body as if it is external to us, as if we bear no accountability for it. But at the end of the day, here we are,” Coons said. “In many ways, we have all let [the American people] down today.”

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