Nuclear option reveals new depth of political rancor

By Jules Witcover - Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is poised to enable a simple majority of senators to confirm federal judge Neil Gorsuch of Colorado as a Supreme Court justice, something he can do by killing off the long-standing tradition of the Senate filibuster.

McConnell reportedly has the votes to use the so-called “nuclear option” to shatter the procedure celebrated in the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which James Stewart talks to death a corporate give-away bill. At stake now is the direction of a Supreme court currently tied in a 4-4 ideological split after the death of conservative icon Antonin Scalia.

It currently takes a three-fifths majority — 60 votes in the full Senate — to end a filibuster. Even though a handful of Democrats have indicated they will vote for cloture (i.e., to end debate and clear the way for a vote on confirming Gorsuch), under current rules the party has enough votes to sustain a filibuster. However, barring some unexpected late compromise between the parties, McConnell will arrange a vote to change the rules and Gorsuch will go on the highest bench.

If a simple majority is allowed to confirm Gorsuch, it will deliver Trump his first major political victory after more than two months of a dismal and erratic presidency. So far, his major promises on immigration and health care reform have gone unfulfilled.

The president, unfamiliar with the integral niceties of the legislative process, has thrown his full weight behind McConnell’s option to crush the Senate filibuster, not only for this nomination but for deciding on those in the future.

Three aging sitting Justices — two Democratic appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Beyer, and Republican one, Anthony Kennedy — may possibly be considering retirement, so Trump could eventually be positioned to give the Republican Party control in all three branches of the federal government. This is one of the prices the Senate Democrats may have to pay for facilitating Gorsuch’s path to the court.

The fact he is well qualified by judicial experience and received strong endorsements to assume the vacated seat of Scalia suggests a restoration of the previous ideological composition of the court — but no radical change in itself in the Trump era.

Trump came to the presidency with neither clear conservative nor even a partisan Republican identification, except for one of the political convenience of capturing a party in search of a leader. He showed up as the available vehicle for his message as the pied piper of the angry, alienated and unemployed American working class, and it emphatically carried the day.

Notably, giving the GOP control of the Supreme Court was not among the foremost pledges he made during his startling road to the Oval Office. He pledged early to repeal and replace Obamacare, to build a great wall on the southern border and make the Mexicans pay for it, and to deport millions of illegal immigrants, including Muslims. None of these things have taken place.

It’s true he’s only been in charge a very short time, but amid the chaotic beginning, his approval rating in the Gallup Poll has fallen from an unimpressive 47 percent to 38 now. After Barack Obama’s first month in office, Gallup had him at 63 percent, and George W. Bush at the same point was at 61 percent.

The dark cloud of Russian interference in the 2016 election, verified by the broad U.S. intelligence community, still hangs over Trump’s unverified tweets. They include his accusation that President Obama ordered surveillance on him and on Trump Tower during the campaign.

All this comes as the new president deals with critical foreign policy responsibilities, including high-level White House visits from the leaders of Egypt, China and Jordan, one of which has been re-routed to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s luxury escape in Florida.

What kind of message does this send about Trump’s seriousness and focus on the challenges millions of American voters have trusted him to address? Trump’s evident reliance on television talk shows to keep him abreast of what’s going on in the world and in Washington is shocking. Is it too much to expect that he attends to the public’s business from the Oval Office?

By Jules Witcover

Tribune News Service