President Trump’s promise to announce his nomination for the late Justice Scalia’s seat within two weeks of taking office has breathed new life into the almost yearlong battle between Senate Democrats and Republicans. President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland officially expired on January 3rd after the Republicans successfully stymied the process by refusing to hold the necessary hearings to proceed to a vote. With this unprecedented act of obstruction fresh in the Nation’s mind, the Senate Democrats will have to decide whether they will respond in kind with more obstruction or move forward with filling the long-vacant seat.
The biggest threat to the successful appointment of Trump’s nominee is a Democrat-led filibuster. While the Republicans currently hold a majority in the Senate with 52 seats, they fall short of 60 – the number of votes needed to invoke cloture and end the debate. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has already signaled that the Democrats are prepared to “oppose them tooth and nail” if the pick is unsatisfactory, making a filibuster a credible, if not almost certain, threat. This leaves Republicans with two options, find a way to pick up the 8 missing votes to break the filibuster or invoke the “nuclear option” to include Supreme Court nominees among those which only require 51 votes to break a filibuster.
Republicans have already begun wooing moderate Democrats as well as those they perceive to be in a vulnerable position: defending a seat in a red-leaning state with the 2018 elections looming on the horizon. Vice President Pence met with six Democratic Senators recently, undoubtedly hoping to secure some of the necessary votes to break a filibuster and weaken the unity of Democratic opposition. Coaxing eight Democrats to defect is a challenge at the best of times but the Republicans appear to be banking on the need for the Democrats to defend every seat to change the usual calculus. Republicans may also add to the pressure by accusing the Democrats of being hypocrites for blocking a vote after arguing that the Constitution required the Senate to act on Garland’s nomination. Whether that will be enough to overcome the pressure to maintain a unified front or their own misgivings regarding Trump’s nominee remains to be seen however.
The more reliable solution, detonating the “nuclear option” and essentially banning the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, also comes with the most unpredictable fallout. In the short term, the nuclear option would allow the Republicans to secure at least one Supreme Court seat without any need to woo Democrats or make concessions in their choice of nominee. Considering the ages of the Justices, notably Ginsberg at 83, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Republicans could pick up a second or third seat during Trump’s term which would dramatically shape the direction of the Court for decades to come. In exchange, the Republicans would sacrifice their own right to filibuster a Democrat Supreme Court nominee when the tide inevitably turned and the Republicans were the Senate minority. Republican leadership remains tightlipped regarding their willingness to implement the nuclear option but they have also not indicated that it is out of play either.
Supreme Court nominations have historically been lightning rods for partisan battles but this round finds us in uncharted waters now that changing the rules with the “nuclear option” is a viable solution to the filibuster problem. Whoever is nominated and subsequently confirmed will have a significant impact on the Court by virtue of being one of only nine justices but what would the impact be of no longer having to overcome the 60-vote hurdle to break a filibuster for a Supreme Court nominee if the “nuclear option” were used? Would there be a shift to more extreme nominees on both sides if only a simple majority vote were needed? It is impossible to say exactly what effect, if any, a rule change would have on future nominations but in the words of Stone Gossard “Politics is tricky; it cuts both ways. Every time you make a choice, it has unintended consequences.”