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What Is the Nuclear Option?

The Senate Just Chose the "Nuclear Option" For Gorsuch — Here's What That Means

On April 6, Senate Republicans invoked the "nuclear option" as a way to end the Democratic filibuster against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil M. Gorsuch. This is only the second time the nuclear option has been used in the Senate — and it has real consequences. So, what does that mean now and for the future of lawmaking in the US? Read on for a breakdown.

What is the nuclear option?

The nuclear option allows for a Senate majority to change the rules the Senate must follow. In this case, it allows the Senate to change the number of votes needed to confirm a Supreme Court nominee to a simple majority of 51 instead of a super majority of 60. The nuclear option used on April 6 also ended the filibuster, a political move usually used by the Senate minority to block any progress on a bill or nomination.

How did the Senate use the nuclear option?

The Senate Democrats started a filibuster to block the nomination of Gorsuch. For the filibuster to end, the Senate would need 60 votes or else the nomination of Gorsuch would've failed. So, instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked to end the filibuster by overturning a ruling that requires 60 majority votes to end a debate. It passed with the 52 sitting Republican senators voting yes.

This then allowed for the Senate to vote again on whether to end the debate and move Gorsuch's final confirmation hearing to April 7, which it did with a vote of 55 to 45, reports The New York Times.

What does this mean for future Supreme Court nominations?

The nuclear option has now set a new precedent: the Senate no longer needs a majority of 60 votes to confirm a new nominee. It could let the president pick more decisive nominees that lean more left or right, further politicizing the court over time.

Has the Senate used the nuclear option before?

In 2013, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid used the nuclear option for lower court and executive branch nominees. This let nominations for these positions pass with a simple majority (51) vs. a super majority (60).

Why is this a big deal?

Considering Republicans blocked former President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, from even having a confirmation hearing — and Gorsuch's conservative leanings — Democrats have broadly pushed back hard against his nomination. Before the nuclear option, Senator Charles Schumer suggested that Republicans change the nominee to avoid setting this dangerous precedent. As we know now, that didn't happen — and the ramifications will likely be felt for years to come.

Image Source: Getty / Saul Loeb
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