After weeks of publicly complaining that Senate Democrats were going easy on Neil Gorsuch, liberal activists are close to securing a successful filibuster of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick. But they’re not stopping there.
Activists are now vowing to make Republicans pay a political price if they decide to rip up Senate rules to push Gorsuch through with a simple majority vote. And if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell does kill the Supreme Court filibuster to confirm Gorsuch, liberals say they’ll still come out on top — having further emboldened a base that wants Democrats to brook no compromise with Trump.
“Democrats showing they can unify [against Gorsuch] helps energize the grass roots,” MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Wikler said in an interview. “If Republicans decide to go nuclear, that will further energize the resistance movement. The only bad path here is for Democrats to flee the fight.”
Simply getting to this point is a victory for the left, which began the Supreme Court battle frustrated with Senate Democrats and bluntly urging them to “do better” as Gorsuch appeared on track for easy confirmation. But over the past two weeks, as liberals kept nudging Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s caucus to push back harder, Democrats have abandoned their reluctance to commit to a filibuster.
The shift can be largely credited to the aggressive campaign from liberal groups, though a number of Democrats also became inclined to favor a filibuster after they found Gorsuch’s answers far too noncommittal during his marathon confirmation hearing.
Most GOP senators have signaled they’re ready to back McConnell on a critical vote to unilaterally change Senate rules. But a handful have remained skeptical enough to fuel speculation among Gorsuch foes that the Kentucky Republican may be short of the votes.
Amid continuing talk of a last-minute deal to preserve the filibuster for Supreme Court picks, liberals are starting to publicly prod Republicans to explain why they would change the Senate rules.
“I don’t always see eye to eye with these folks, but some of them are expressing caution about changing the norms of the Senate,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “So we’ll see. I don’t know that they have 51 votes yet — but that’s on them to prove, not me.”
As the Senate drew closer to a possible “nuclear option” scheduled for the end of next week, few Republicans were optimistic about defusing the tension.
“The Democrats, they know better,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told reporters. “But their base, you understand, won’t allow them to do the right thing.”
Corker referenced liberal protesters gathering outside Schumer’s Brooklyn apartment earlier this year as a reason that “he’s making these arguments about [Gorsuch] being extreme. We all know that’s not true.”
Senate Democrats don’t share some liberal activists’ skepticism that McConnell will muscle through a rules change that promises to further poison relations in the polarized Senate — and which could spark blowback for his party when the GOP next loses the White House.
But Democrats do agree with one strategic move by their base: They’re starting to press Republicans to own their decision to end filibusters for Supreme Court nominees, not just talk about it.
“Everybody’s talking about whether Gorsuch gets confirmed — and that’s essential and right in front of us,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in an interview. “But the broader question, in the sweep of history is: What happens to the Senate? And that’s in the hands of just a handful of Republicans, not us.”
“There are enormous implications of changing the rules of the Senate in order to force an unpopular Supreme Court justice through,” adds Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I hope Republicans think about the consequences of what they’re thinking about doing.”
For the moment, Democrats’ progress towards a viable filibuster is attracting outsized attention on Capitol Hill. Politico’s count stood at 36 Senate Democrats ready to block Gorsuch after Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri made a pivotal announcement of her opposition on Friday. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are the only Democrats in the yes column.
On Monday, left-leaning groups, including Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution, plan to send a message to Democrats who are considering joining Heitkamp and Manchin. They have organized a petition publicly imploring the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to withhold support from any Democratic senator who backs Gorsuch.
Once Schumer’s caucus gets to 41 confirmed votes to block Gorsuch, the focus will shift to Republicans who remain less than publicly committed to supporting the so-called nuclear option to change the rules — including Corker and Sens Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona.
Liberal activist groups are pushing as hard as possible to move scrutiny to the GOP whip count, touting a poll they commissioned that shows 69 percent of all voters — and even four in 10 Trump backers — oppose Republican changes to Senate filibuster rules.
“McConnell has very cunningly kept all the attention off his conference for this whole arc,” said one liberal strategist working on the Gorsuch nomination, describing moderate Republicans as “leaning into it, bluffing” on where they stand. “He does an excellent job of giving the impression that getting the votes to change the rules isn’t a problem.”
McConnell, for his part, is well aware of the pressure Democrats are facing from liberal groups opposed to Gorsuch.
“This isn’t about the nominee at all,” McConnell said on the floor earlier this week. “It’s about a few on the left whose priority is to obstruct this Senate and this president, whenever and wherever they can. Months after the election, they’re still in campaign mode calling for Senate Democrats to obstruct and resist.”
But with McConnell’s guarantee that Gorsuch will be confirmed by April 7, liberals are warning Republicans of the potential midterm-election ramifications of jamming Gorsuch onto the court.
Hogue, of NARAL, said anti-Gorsuch rallies spearheaded by her group on Saturday would be aimed as much at Republicans as at Democrats.
“It’s really important for people to remember that if this judge is confirmed, especially if Republicans change the rules to get Trump’s guys in, it won’t be theory in 2018,” Hogue said. “This guy will have ruled. It will be a Gorsuch court — and it most likely will have ruled on some of Trump’s agenda.”
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