US Senate Republicans 'go nuclear,' clearing way for Donald Trump court nominee
Republicans have invoked the "nuclear option" in the US Senate, unilaterally rewriting the chamber's rules to allow President Donald Trump's nominee to ascend to the Supreme Court.
Furious Democrats objected, but their efforts to block Judge Neil Gorsuch failed as expected.
Politicians from both parties bemoaned the long-term implications for the Senate, the court and the country.
"We will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court," said Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
The manoeuvring played out in an atmosphere of tension in the Senate chamber with most senators in their seats, a rare occurrence.
First Democrats mounted a filibuster in an effort to block Mr Gorsuch by denying him the 60 votes needed to advance to a final vote.
Then Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky raised a point of order, suggesting that Supreme Court nominees should not be subjected to a 60-vote threshold but instead a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
Mr McConnell was overruled, but appealed, and prevailed on a 52-48 party line vote.
The 60-vote filibuster requirement on Supreme Court nominees was effectively removed, and with it the last vestige of bipartisanship on presidential nominees in an increasingly polarised Senate.
A final confirmation vote on Mr Gorsuch is expected on Friday and he could be sworn in in time to take his seat on the court later this month and hear the final cases of the term.
Mr McConnell accused Democrats of forcing his hand by trying to filibuster a highly qualified nominee in Mr Gorsuch, 49, a 10-year veteran of the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver with a consistently conservative record.
Mr McConnell vowed that the rules change would block the Gorsuch filibuster, and all future ones, a change many politicians warned could lead to an even more polarised Senate.
"This will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee," Mr McConnell said. "This is the latest escalation in the left's never-ending judicial war, the most audacious yet, and it cannot and will not stand."
Supreme Court filibusters are almost unheard of in the Senate, but the confrontation is playing out amid an explosive political atmosphere with liberal Democrats furious over the Trump presidency and Republicans desperate to get a win after months of chaos.
Democrats also remain livid over Mr McConnell's decision last year to deny consideration to then-President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was ignored for almost a year by Senate Republicans after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Instead, Mr McConnell kept Mr Scalia's seat open, a calculation that is now paying off hugely for Republicans and Mr Trump, who will be able to claim the biggest victory of his presidency to date if Mr Gorsuch is confirmed as expected.
"We believe that what Republicans did to Merrick Garland was worse than a filibuster," Mr Schumer said. "We didn't hear two words in the long speech of Senator McConnell: Merrick Garland."
Emotions were running high ahead of the votes with raised voices on the floor where proceedings are normally sedate.
All involved were keenly aware of the long-term implications of the proceedings, some of them hard to predict for the future of Mr Trump's presidency and the 2018 mid-term elections, when Republicans will be defending their slim 52-48 Senate majority and 10 vulnerable Democrats in states Mr Trump won will be up for re-election.
Moderate Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine said roughly 10 senators of both parties worked over the weekend to come up with a deal to stave off the so-called "nuclear option," as the rules change is known, but could not come to agreement.
Mr Gorsuch now counts 55 supporters in the Senate: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Mr Trump won last November - Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Mr Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, said he would not join in the filibuster against Mr Gorsuch but has not said how he will vote on confirmation.