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Collins Joins With Fellow Republicans to Approve 'Nuclear Option' Rule Change

J. Scott Applewhite
Associated Press/file
Sen. Susan Collins finishes a television news interview on Capitol Hill late last month.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins on Thursday joined 51 other Republicans to change a rule designed encourage bipartisan agreement on high court nominations.

The historic maneuver, popularly dubbed the nuclear option, ended a Democratic filibuster of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch and will pave the way for his confirmation.

The 52-48 vote fell along party lines. Three Democrats later joined the Republican majority to proceed to the final debate on Gorsuch’s confirmation.

Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine opposed the change. He has also said he will oppose Gorsuch’s confirmation.

Congressional experts have warned that the change could have far-reaching consequences, potentially leading to more ideologically extreme high court nominees. Others worry the change and an increasingly polarized Congress will eventually lead the Senate to use the nuclear option on legislation. Such a change would allow the majority party to ram through bills without any input from the minority party.

Thursday’s vote could also have consequences for Collins, an advocate of the rule she has now voted to eliminate. Maine’s senior senator has constructed her political career on her willingness to compromise and work with Democrats.

Collins said she’d been talks with Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware to avoid the rule change. She said Wednesday that those talks failed. The substance of those negotiations is unknown.

On Wednesday she said Democrats forced her to support the rule change when they vowed to filibuster Gorsuch despite his qualifications. She reiterated that position in a lengthy written statement explaining her vote.

“The majority of my Democratic counterparts simply disagree with the notion that the filibuster should only be used in the nomination process under extraordinary circumstances,” she said. “Under the extraordinary circumstances standard, there would be absolutely no basis for filibustering this nomination. Judge Gorsuch has sterling academic and legal credentials. He has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to precedent and to the rule of law. He is an intellectually gifted judge, who has received the American Bar Association’s highest rating. Yet because of this philosophical change in how Senate Democrats approach nominations, we are now dealing with the first partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee in the history of our country.”

Collins said she plans to vote for Gorsuch. King will not. And he was criticized Thursday for voting with Democrats to keep the old filibuster threshold.

“Senator King has shown his true colors, he is not an independent in the least, whether that be an independent thinker or independent legislator,” said Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage. “By siding with liberal Democrats, Senator King has placed himself far to the left of moderate Democrats in the U.S. Senate supporting Judge Gorsuch.”

Thursday’s vote strips Democrats of the power to filibuster Gorsuch and delay a final vote on his confirmation.

April Humphrey, director of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, a progressive group that has been pressuring the congressional delegation on President Trump’s nominations, said Collins abandoned her own principles.

“Senator Collins has stated time and again her commitment to following the proper rules and procedures in the Senate,” she said in a statement. “Clearly she is willing to bend the rules when it favors her own party. Collins can no longer use obscure procedural reasoning to explain away unpopular votes. Any further argument from Collins premised on her commitment to procedure will come across as patently hypocritical. She was clearly willing to throw those values out the window for Trump and his nominee.”

Prior to the action taken by Republicans on Thursday, 60 votes would have been needed to clear a procedural hurdle for high court confirmations in the Senate. Republicans only have 52 seats, meaning Democrats could filibuster Gorsuch’s confirmation.

The move by Republicans lowers the filibuster threshold to 51 votes.

The Senate is generally viewed as more deliberative and collaborative than the House of Representatives.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Senate voted in 1917 to create a super-majority of 67 to cut off the minority party’s ability to filibuster. That threshold was lowered to 60 in 1975 for all legislation and presidential nominees, including judicial and cabinet appointments.

Four years ago, Majority Leader Harry Reid, frustrated with Republicans’ filibustering of President Barack Obama’s nominations and appeals court nominations, crafted a narrowly tailored nuclear option.

That is why the Democrats were unable to filibuster any of President Trump’s cabinet appointments. Reid’s maneuver also lowered the filibuster threshold on appeals courts nominations.

The final confirmation vote for Gorsuch is set for Friday.