WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday began formal debate on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, hurtling toward a blistering partisan conflict this week over the selection itself, the chamber’s future rules and the decaying standards of civility among lawmakers.
The consideration of Judge Gorsuch began as the Republican majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, took a procedural step to end debate this week on President Trump’s nominee. Mr. McConnell’s maneuver will set in motion a series of critical votes expected to take place on Thursday and Friday. With an almost certain Democratic filibuster of the nomination, the Senate is to vote first on whether to end debate and proceed to an up-or-down vote.
If the filibuster holds, meaning fewer than 60 senators vote to proceed to a full vote on the nominee, Republicans have said they will pursue the so-called nuclear option: changing longstanding rules to elevate Judge Gorsuch on a simple majority vote. That would allow Judge Gorsuch to be confirmed on Friday.
Yet, if the ultimate outcome has seemed preordained for weeks, lawmakers nonetheless felt compelled on Tuesday to frame the confrontation on their terms: Republicans have argued that the responsibility for their own prospective vote — upending Senate tradition to bypass the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations — actually lies with Democrats. Many have refrained from even uttering the phrase “nuclear option” when pressed, despite its common use in the Capitol, for apparent fear of associating with an act of procedural aggression.
At the same time, Democrats have operated on two tracks: They have sought to present their opponents as hypocrites by reminding the public about Judge Merrick B. Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat last year, whom Republicans refused to even consider during a presidential election year. But the minority party has insisted that its resistance to Judge Gorsuch is not about retribution, citing his record on workers’ rights and his degree of independence from Mr. Trump, among other concerns. They have argued that the nomination should be withdrawn if the judge cannot earn 60 votes.
“We lost one, they lost one,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, told reporters, predicting a successful blockade. “We should now get in a room and come up with a compromise.”
Mr. McConnell said he would have no choice but to change the rules if faced with a filibuster.
“Americans will be watching. History will be watching,” he said, urging Democrats to abandon their plans. “And the future of the Senate will hang on their choice.”
The posturing came one day after Judge Gorsuch was approved 11 to 9 by the Judiciary Committee in a party-line vote.
Both sides have pointed repeatedly to examples of escalating obstructionism in recent years, from Democratic attempts to block judicial nominees under President George W. Bush to a wide-scale proliferation of Republican filibusters under Mr. Obama.
Most senators seemed to agree that they were participating in a low moment for the chamber, even as they appeared resigned to the conclusion. Grim reflection has grown more common than usual, which is saying something.
“There’s a reason they call it the nuclear option,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said. “There’s fallout.”
He alluded to Republican criticism of the Democrats’ choice in 2013, when they held the Senate majority, to bar filibusters on lower judgeships and executive branch nominees. “There is no equivalence,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
Asked what was happening to an institution many lawmakers still revere, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, stared gravely at a group of reporters in the basement of the Capitol.
“Partisanship. Partisanship. Partisanship. Partisanship,” he said. (The word returned occasionally later in his remarks.)
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, suggested there were still sporadic conversations underway between senators about a possible deal to avert the coming maelstrom.
“But nothing promising,” he said.
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