WASHINGTON — The two senators from Texas sent a clear message to their Democratic colleagues Wednesday: Allow an up-or-down vote on Judge Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court or risk the fallout.
Republicans have 52 seats in the 100-member Senate. They need 60 votes to avert a Democratic filibuster, and the vote count is increasingly tight. Should a move to call a vote on Gorsuch fall short of 60 votes, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will face the choice of letting that nomination fail or making a dramatic change to Senate rules, a prospect often described as the "nuclear option."
President Trump nominated Gorsuch in January to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an intensely conservative legal mind.
"Judge Gorsuch should be confirmed to the Supreme Court and will be confirmed to the Supreme Court," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told reporters just steps from the Supreme Court building.
"Will they ever vote to confirm anybody under this president?" concurred U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon.
As the Senate majority whip – the second most powerful post among Senate Republicans – Cornyn is at the pressure point of the vote count. He is closely allied with McConnell, and his comments likely reflect GOP leadership's frustrations with Democrats.
Cruz made his remarks outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he once clerked under the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and where he later made frequent trips to argue as the Texas state solicitor general. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa and U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Lee of Utah, all Republicans, joined Cruz at the news conference, which drew a soundtrack of protestor chants.
"This judicial nomination, I believe, was the most transparent judicial nomination in history. Indeed, it is without precedent," Cruz said in his remarks.
"Last year, then-candidate Donald Trump released a name of 21 names from whom he would choose to replace Justice Scalia," he added. "The voters had that list in front of them. They knew exactly the 21 names. Neil Gorsuch was one of those 21."
Therefore, Cruz argued, the Gorusch nomination carried with it a "super-legitimacy."
Pressure for Republicans to succeed on Gorsuch's confirmation vote grows by the day, particularly following last week's failure to move a health care bill forward.
Cruz essentially called for a simple majority, 51-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominations going forward.
"No Supreme Court justice in history has been defeated because he was filibustered," Cruz said.
Typically, fights over Supreme Court nominations center around the abortion issue, and this is the case this time as well.
But there is another layer to Democratic unwillingness to play ball this time around: Members of the opposition party are still deeply incensed that Republicans refused to hold hearings for former President Barack Obama's nominee for the same seat, Judge Merrick Garland. Republicans argued at the time that Scalia's unexpected death at a West Texas ranch more than a year ago was too close to the end of Obama's second term.
Further complicating the politics, the Democratic base is highly organized and restive in the wake of Trump's presidential victory. That factor is undoubtedly pressuring Democrats to hold the line against most of the president's policies and nominations.
Cornyn is increasingly calling for Democratic participation on an array of Senate activities. His Democratic colleagues would almost certainly say that Senate Republicans contributed to the partisan escalation last year with their handling of Obama's nomination of Garland.
Even so, Cornyn said that voters want to see the two parties come together.
"Most of them want you to be productive and work together to solve problems," he said.