The Republican leader’s Supreme Court gambit secures his place in history — but at what cost to the Senate?
When Neil Gorsuch is confirmed to the Supreme Court this week, Mitch McConnell will clinch a place in history after pulling off one of the most audacious gambles in modern political history.
Whether he’ll be regarded as a hero or a villain depends almost entirely on which side of the aisle one is on.
The immediate payoff to the Republican Party is enormous and indisputable, starting, of course, with another staunch conservative on the court who could remain there for decades. But Republicans also credit McConnell with saving the Senate majority and electing President Donald Trump, by giving traditional conservative voters a powerful motivator to turn out for a nominee they were less than enthused about.
“He’s a big believer in the prerogatives of the Senate,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of McConnell’s leadership team. “Mitch’s handling of all these issues when it comes to the courts is something that I’m sure will be studied probably down the road.”
McConnell’s critics, though, said what he’ll really be remembered for is the lasting damage he did to the institution. His expected move this week to blow up Senate rules so Supreme Court justices can be approved by a simple majority could well produce a more polarized and ideologically pure high court over time. It takes the Senate down a similar path.
“Merrick Garland is how he’ll be remembered, violating 230 years of Senate tradition to create this unholy mess we’re facing,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
Belying his reputation for caution, McConnell has revolutionized Senate tactics, stretching his wide-ranging power as party leader to turn once-routine confirmation votes and legislative exercises into trench warfare. Republicans blame Democrats for using the filibuster routinely during the presidency of George W. Bush and launching the first major rules change since 2013, but there is no doubt McConnell has weaponized the Senate rules in a manner that is certain to alter the chamber for years to come.
When Barack Obama was president and McConnell was deep in the minority, he used dilatory techniques and GOP unity to deny the Democratic president wins. Even after former Majority Leader Harry Reid gutted the filibuster and unilaterally confirmed dozens of liberal-leaning judges and several Cabinet members, McConnell often delayed them as much as he could. Once McConnell took the majority, he used his power as Senate leader to slow confirmation of lower-level judges to a trickle and block Garland from even receiving a hearing to set the table for a GOP makeover if Republicans won in 2016.
And Republicans never paid an electoral price for McConnell’s actions, emboldening Democrats to meet McConnell with a historic partisan filibuster to deny Gorsuch the 60 votes he needs to advance. Even Reid had to pay grudging respect to McConnell’s shrewdness after the election, recalling in an interview last year that he told McConnell on the Senate floor: “Mitch, I disagreed with how you did it, but it’s admirable that you did it.”
McConnell is planning to escalate things further by making high-court nominees subject to a simple majority requirement to jam through Gorsuch, a significant change that will both dilute the minority party’s leverage and empower presidents to select justices with no bipartisan appeal.
“We’ll end up with a Supreme Court that has far more extreme justices on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who worries the Senate is being ruined. “On our side of the aisle it’s being sold as a badge of honor right now, as a great thing. And that’s what I’ve been railing about.”
McConnell has no regrets about blocking Garland or creating the Senate’s current predicament.
“We were right in the middle of a presidential election year. Everybody knew that neither side, had the shoe been on the other foot, would have filled it,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “But that has nothing to do with what we’re voting on” now.
Still, McConnell’s decision to block Obama from filling the seat made many Republican senators uncomfortable. The most infamous moment was when Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said in March 2016 that Garland should be considered and the “process should go forward.” He was immediately savaged by conservatives and threatened with a primary challenge by former Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.).
Moran quickly walked back his statement and now admits McConnell’s strategy paid off.