The Senate Goes Nuclear

Posted by on Apr 12, 2017 in Current Events

Earlier this month, Election Central brought you a look at the Honorable Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court justice, and at some of the controversy surrounding his Senate confirmation hearings. Since then, Gorsuch has been confirmed and has been sworn in as the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States. However, the circumstances of his confirmation will have an historical impact that outlasts even Gorsuch’s lifelong appointment.

Columns of Supreme Court, Washington, D.C.

Credit: Robert Shafer/ Stockbyte/Getty Images

Going Nuclear

The Senate is the legislative body responsible for confirming a president’s nominee to the Supreme Court. Currently, there are 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats in the Senate. In order to prevent being outvoted, Democrats attempted to use a tool called a filibuster, which is when the minority party speaks continuously on the floor of the Senate in order to delay or block a vote. Sixty votes are required to stop a filibuster. The Republicans only had 52. Republican Senators responded by “going nuclear,” which means that they essentially changed the rules of the Senate so that Gorsuch could be confirmed with a simple majority (51 votes instead of the 60 previously required).

Why It Matters

The use of the so-called “nuclear option” has changed two-hundred-year-old senatorial tradition forever. The 60-vote “supermajority” was an important Senate institution because it required senators to work together to reach compromises. If a Supreme Court nominee didn’t have enough votes to be confirmed, the majority would either have to win members of the minority party over to their side, or the president would have to choose a different nominee with a wider appeal. Now, the policy in the Senate is simply “majority rules.” This means that, with 52 out of 100 votes, Republican Senators do not have to worry about compromising, debating, or winning over their Democratic counterparts. Rather, they can confirm whomever they choose, and pass any legislation they choose, with a simple 51-vote majority. It also takes away the filibuster as a tactic for the minority party.

The reason this option is called “going nuclear” is because it effectively “blows up” the Senate.


As Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said, “When a nominee doesn’t get enough votes for confirmation the answer is not to change the rules, it’s to change the nominee.” Predictably, the response of Democratic senators to last week’s proceedings has been very negative. They have expressed concern that now their Republican counterparts will be able to take any action they choose by virtue of having a simple majority vote. Most Republicans, on the other hand, have defended their vote for the nuclear option, arguing that Democrats would never have approved any justice who was nominated by President Trump, and that “going nuclear” was their only choice if they were ever going to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat.

Judge Gorsuch officially joined the Supreme Court on Monday.

Dig Deeper A Supreme Court confirmation is especially significant because Supreme Court justices serve a life term. Using internet resources, research the current members of the Supreme Court to find out how long each one has served on the Court. Given Judge Gorsuch’s relatively young age (49 years old), how many years could he potentially serve? Do you think this has anything to do with Democrats’ resistance to his confirmation? Explain.