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What The Nuclear Option Against Filibuster Of Gorsuch's Nomination Means


President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, appears to be headed for the bench. But first, the U.S. Senate is headed for a landmark change to its rules. Those rules require 60 senators to agree to end debate and vote on the nominee. There aren't enough Democrats willing to do that, so Republicans are poised to lower the threshold to cut off a Democratic filibuster.

We've heard this week from Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii about why her party is trying to block Gorsuch. Now, Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri on the reasons for changing long-standing Senate procedure. Senator, welcome to the program.

ROY BLUNT: Robert, good to be with you.

SIEGEL: This rules change is considered so dramatic it's referred to in Washington as the nuclear option. Are Republicans about to deal a severe blow to the minority party's rights?

BLUNT: Well, I don't think so. I think this is actually very much in the context of how the Senate always worked on presidential nominees until about 15 years ago. Until 2003, the idea of using a 60-vote threshold to keep somebody off the court as a partisan maneuver had never been considered for the court or for a presidential Cabinet appointment.

You know, many - there were some people that didn't get on the Cabinet or didn't get on the court. But it wasn't because they couldn't get 60 votes, it was because they couldn't get a majority of the votes. The Clarence Thomas nomination, very controversial, nobody even asked for the 60-vote vote. And Clarence Thomas went on the court 52-48, just like Judge Alito a few years later went on the court with about - I think he had 58 votes.

SIEGEL: But that hasn't been the case in more recent years. And what do you say to Democrats who say that any shred of that kind of bipartisan decorum over Supreme Court nominees was lost when President Obama's nominee to fill this very seat, Judge Merrick Garland, wasn't even given the courtesy of hearing?

BLUNT: Well, I think that's a different topic. But it has actually been the case in recent years. Neither Sotomayor or Kagan got a 60-vote cloture vote to go ahead and have the vote. In fact, the current attorney general, who was the ranking Republican at the time on the Judiciary Committee, told Harry Reid he didn't need to have a cloture vote because we didn't think that should be required for Supreme Court judges, wasn't required. It's just not been part of the process. But you asked another question there, what was your second?

SIEGEL: Well, it was about the decline of bipartisanship. Let me ask you this, though. You served in the House before being elected to the Senate. There are some senators who say this will turn the Senate into being just like the House of Representatives, no special rules governing open debate.

BLUNT: Well, the legislative threshold has always been higher than a simple majority to get to the bill itself. That will continue to be the case. That was the case for - since about 1789. The super majority to put somebody on the court is a new idea. In fact, it really was focused on the D.C. Court of Appeals, not the Supreme Court, and it didn't happen till 2003.

So I think actually in many ways this probably solidifies the desire of Republicans and Democrats both to keep the legislative process the way it's always been and return the nominating process to the way it always was until 14 years ago or so.

SIEGEL: But you don't think that if a - if an especially controversial bill came in from the House with only 55 votes, whether it's about taxes or health care, that there wouldn't be pressure to dispose of the 60-vote required majority to cut off debate on legislation?

BLUNT: Well, I think there would be pressure from the House and even from some people around the country. There's no question about that. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen. You know, the Republicans - I'm a Republican, I'm a conservative.

In the last hundred years, the last 50 years, the last 10 years, my side's been in the minority more often than we've been in the majority. And minority or minority, we were always for confirming judicial nominees until the last decade or so with a majority but always for maintaining a legislative number that was higher than that.


BLUNT: I think it's not a contradiction and never was a contradiction in the whole history of the Congress. It doesn't mean that House members won't say just pass this with 51 votes. But that doesn't mean the Senate would be ready to do that.

SIEGEL: Senator Blunt, thanks for talking with us.

BLUNT: Good to be you.

SIEGEL: That's Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.