Senate Republicans took their first procedural step Tuesday toward implementing the "nuclear option" to get Judge Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court over Democratic opposition when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moved to end debate on his nomination.
A vote on that "cloture" motion will take place Thursday. Democrats can block ending debate -- what's known as a filibuster -- by mustering 41 votes against it, which they are expected to be able to do.
At that point, McConnell will turn to the nuclear option by essentially declaring from the Senate floor that from now on filibusters of Supreme Court nominees can be stopped with 51 votes not 60, as has been the case for decades.
McConnell's declaration would then be enforced by a roll call vote when 51 votes are needed to create the new Senate precedent. Vice President Mike Pence will be standing by to break a tie if not all 52 Republicans back the nuclear option, which is possible.
Once the new threshold is in place, there will be a re-vote to end debate, or break the filibuster of Gorsuch, which will then be able to be done with just 51 GOP votes.
McConnell offered a one word answer: "yes" when asked earlier Tuesday at his weekly presser if Republicans are confident they have the votes for the nuclear option.
Senate rules then allow for up to 30 hours of "post-cloture" debate time, which Democrats are expected to use. That would set up a final confirmation vote sometime Friday evening.
The change is an unpopular move that the then-majority Democrats used in 2013 for lower court judges and executive nominees. Many Republicans have shown great reluctance about using it this year but argue they have no other path to overcome the filibuster.
Some members from both parties have expressed hope that informal, bipartisan discussions could yield a compromise in the next couple of days to avert the nuclear option.
"I am open to conversations about how we might preserve the filibuster. There's three paths forward here, and now it is clear to the Republican majority that if they choose to break the rules, to change the rules, that will be on them," Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said on CNN's "New Day." "They can step back and recognize this is a historic moment, now that it's clear both sides have the votes and we need to have a conversation. Or they could consult with us and reconsider Judge Gorsuch's nomination."
Sen. Susan Collins, who'd been involved in the bipartisan talks to find a compromise, said Tuesday the chances of a compromise looked bleak.
"I think it's extremely unlikely, regrettably," she told reporters.
Republican Sen. John McCain, who was also part of the talks in recent weeks, said on "New Day" that the nuclear option is "going to happen."
"I think it's a dark day in the history of the United States Senate. It's going to happen. It's interesting that Republicans were dead set against it when my former colleague Harry Reid invoked it with the judges, but now it seems to be OK," McCain said.
He described the Senate as "so polarized" now that "there's no communications anymore."
"If you can do this with 51 votes, what do you think the next nominee is going to be like? What do you think will happen when eventually Democrats are in majority in the Senate? That's doing to happen sooner rather than later," he added. "I hope later."