WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Senate showdown is at hand over President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, and it could change the Senate and the court for years to come.
Democrats escalated their attacks against Judge Neil Gorsuch ahead of key votes set for Thursday, portraying him as an ally of the powerful and an enemy of the weak. Republicans defended him, accusing Democrats of trying to block Gorsuch out of frustration over Trump's election victory.
"Democrats would filibuster Ruth Bader Ginsburg if President Donald Trump nominated her," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., naming one of the more liberal sitting justices. "There is simply no principled reason to oppose this exceptional, exceptional Supreme Court nominee."
Democrats begged to differ, returning again and again to McConnell's decision last year to deny consideration to then-President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was ignored for nearly a year by Senate Republicans after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Instead McConnell kept Scalia's seat open, a calculation that is now paying off hugely for Republicans and Trump, who will be able to claim the biggest victory of his presidency to date if Gorsuch is confirmed as expected.
"For the first time in history, we are considering a nominee for a stolen Supreme Court seat, and that alone should be reason for everyone who cares about this institution to turn down this nominee," said Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., as he wrapped up a 15-and-a-half-hour overnight talk-a-thon to underscore his party's opposition to Gorsuch.
The confrontation will play out Thursday as 44 Democrats and independents try to block Gorsuch by denying Republicans the 60 votes needed to proceed to final passage. McConnell and fellow Republicans intend to respond by unilaterally changing Senate rules to remove the 60-vote filibuster requirement for Gorsuch and all future Supreme Court nominees, reducing it to a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
If the maneuvering plays out as expected it will set the stage for a final confirmation vote on Gorsuch Friday, allowing him to join the court in time to hear the final set of cases this term.
Senators on both sides of the aisle lamented the trajectory they were on toward the Senate rules change, though they themselves were in position to prevent it from happening and failed to do so.
Moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said roughly 10 senators of both parties worked over the weekend to come up with a deal to stave off the so-called "nuclear option," as the rules change is known, but couldn't come to agreement. In 2005, a bipartisan deal headed off GOP plans to remove the filibuster barrier for lower-court nominees, but in 2013 Democrats took the step, leaving the filibuster in place only for Supreme Court justices.
And now, with political polarization at an extreme, the Senate is on the verge of killing off the Supreme Court filibuster, the one remaining vestige of bipartisanship on presidential appointments. For now the filibuster barrier on legislation will remain, though many fear it could be the next to go.
"I fear that someday we will regret what we are about to do. In fact, I am confident we will," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It is imperative we have a functioning Senate where the rights of the minority are protected regardless of which party is in power at the time."
Nonetheless, McCain was prepared to vote with McConnell on the rules change, saying he felt he had no choice.
Gorsuch now counts 55 supporters in the Senate: the 52 Republicans, along with three moderate Democrats from states that Trump won last November — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. A fourth Senate Democrat, Michael Bennet from Gorsuch's home state of Colorado, has said he will not join in the filibuster against Gorsuch but has not said how he will vote on confirmation.