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Washington • Along party lines, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced President Donald Trump's pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, to the full Senate on Monday, setting up a political showdown that could upend decades of tradition in approving high court justices.
Enough Democrats 41 of them have signaled they will not support Gorsuch's nomination that Republicans may change Senate rules to jettison a long-standing tradition of requiring 60 votes to move to a final vote on a nominee.
Changing that rule has been called the "nuclear option," one that Democrats took in 2013 with regard to other judicial nominations excluding the Supreme Court when they controlled the Senate.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who has long been a protector of Senate traditions, said he would support a rule change for high court nominations, arguing that it was the only way to overcome political gamesmanship with judicial appointments.
"If you're willing to block someone as qualified as Judge Gorsuch, you'll block anyone," Hatch told reporters after the committee voted 11-9 to move the nomination forward.
The Senate is expected to vote Friday to confirm Gorsuch, who would fill the vacancy left after the Feb. 13, 2016, death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. President Barack Obama early last year had picked Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, to take Scalia's place but Republicans steadfastly refused to hold hearings on his nomination. They argued that such a decision should not be made in a presidential election year.
That move, paired with Democrats' concerns about how Gorsuch would rule on high-profile issues such as abortion and money in politics, leaves this week's confirmation battle largely split on party lines. Only three Democratic senators have said they would vote for Gorsuch.
"Despite his impressive academic credentials, Judge Gorsuch's record and evasive responses even refusing to answer questions regarding his views of cases like Roe v. Wade and Citizens United do not give me confidence that he possesses a judicial philosophy that will serve the American public well," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Monday.
"Unless we were asking about fishing or basketball, Judge Gorsuch stonewalled and avoided any substantive response," added Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
The Senate has never required a 60-vote threshold to advance a Supreme Court nominee to a final vote because bipartisan compromises have negated the need in recent situations. This time, however, Democrats are likely to invoke the rule. The GOP, which holds 52 seats, can remove that rule with a simple majority.
"We will not have a successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee because if we have to, we will change the rules," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., adding that he would "hate that" but that it would be necessary.
The White House said Monday it would back the move to remove the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.
Hatch, who was one of Gorsuch's biggest cheerleaders during the Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings, said ending the requirement for a 60-vote hurdle is needed to thwart a left-wing effort to defeat Trump's nominee.
"All I can say is, we can't let them just stop one of the best nominees ever nominated to the Supreme Court because their far-left constituencies are screaming and shouting," Hatch told CNN on Monday, referring to Senate Democrats. "They can't seem to do that and don't seem to have the courage to do that."
Meanwhile, Hatch bristled at the suggestion that it was unfair to push forward Gorsuch's nomination even though he and other Senate Republicans had blocked Obama's nominee for months.
"I'll just tell you straight up, that's total BS," Hatch told CNN's John Berman, who pressed on whether there was a double standard with Republicans wanting to confirm a GOP pick but not a Democratic one. "I can't go back in time and show you any case where in a presidential election year they allowed a Supreme Court justice to be nominated unless both sides agreed. And both sides didn't agree."
Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who as a private lawyer had argued before Gorsuch at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also defended Gorsuch, saying that while Democrats may want him to promise to rule in certain ways, that's not how the judiciary should work.
Lee also said that Gorsuch is someone who rules on the law, but doesn't make law; and he added that the nominee isn't anyone's puppet.
"There has been a suggestion, sometimes it's been implicit, other times it's been very explicit, that Judge Gorsuch is beholden somehow to individuals that have expressed support for him," Lee said. "This is a very, very serious claim. There is a zero evidence to back it up. This is not how Judge Gorsuch decides cases."