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Only Donald Trump can make a Supreme Court fight feel quaint

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

By naming Neil Gorsuch as his nominee to the Supreme Court on Tuesday night — in primetime, with his top two finalists reportedly both summoned to Washington to increase suspense — President Donald Trump took his first step in a process that will ensure his influence lingers in the US for decades.

He also set up a political fight that, after the chaos of the past week, feels familiar: Gorsuch will need 60 votes for confirmation. The left is demanding that Democrats do whatever they can to block Gorsuch’s nomination, in part in response to Republicans’ refusal to even consider Merrick Garland for the past 10 months. But any attempt to filibuster is likely to encourage Republicans to eliminate the filibuster altogether.

The Supreme Court was one reason for wavering conservatives to back Trump in November. More Republicans than Democrats said the Supreme Court was a major factor in their vote. Trump has pleased them with this choice.

He has also given himself a rare breath of normalcy in a turbulent first two weeks on the job. Amid continuing chaos over the refugee ban and increased resistance from Democrats to Trump’s Cabinet nominees, picking a well-respected jurist with a solid conservative reputation might be the most traditionally presidential thing Trump has done in office.

Gorsuch is only 49 years old — young enough to serve, if confirmed, alongside Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom he clerked — which means that he’d likely serve for a long time.

Like Antonin Scalia, whom he would replace, Gorsuch is concerned with the literal interpretation of the Constitution, which makes his jurisprudence conservative. He’s usually sided with religious groups on cases involving religious liberty, but once in a while has ruled with criminal defendants on cases involving criminal law. (Not always; he’s generally supportive of the death penalty.)

Gorsuch hasn’t ruled on abortion cases, but a book he wrote on euthanasia and assisted suicide gives a good idea of his position, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote. “Human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable, and that the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong,” Gorsuch concluded in his book. Pro-choice groups are concerned, though people who oppose abortion personally, including Kennedy, still sometimes vote against curtailing abortion rights.

Progressive groups are pushing Senate Democrats to filibuster Gorsuch — with 48 Democrats, they theoretically have more than enough to block his nomination. Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider Garland’s nomination possibly makes a fight like this more likely.

“Anything less than a complete and utter rejection of Trump’s Cabinet appointees and of their Supreme Court appointees is absolutely unacceptable,” Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, told Vox’s Jeff Stein.

But Senate Democrats, including Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, are wavering. Kaine said merely that he plans to scrutinize Gorsuch’s “temperament and record, particularly on civil rights and other constitutional guarantees.” And Obama’s former acting solicitor general, Neal Katyal, praised Gorsuch: “I have no doubt that if confirmed, Judge Gorsuch would help to restore confidence in the rule of law,” he wrote in the New York Times.

The day in policy: Another rumored executive order on immigration, plus chaos on nominees

Trump likely hopes the Gorsuch nomination will take attention away from his chaotic, leak-filled previous 24 hours that culminated in the firing of the active attorney general. Tuesday was somewhat less chaotic than Monday. (Although given that Monday featured continued fallout from the refugee ban, the White House’s statement omitting Jews from the Holocaust, and the aforementioned firing, that’s a pretty low bar.)

  • Trump appeared to abandon his support for allowing Medicare to negotiate bulk discounts for prescription drugs, a longtime Democratic policy proposal he’d championed at his press conference on January 11. At that press conference, he’d pointed out that the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of lobbyists. Correct. Trump met Tuesday with those lobbyists and criticized “price-fixing” by Medicare that would endanger younger, smaller companies, instead vowing to decrease regulation and taxes.
  • Rumors began circulating again about two executive orders Trump might sign to continue to crack down on immigration. One of the draft orders, obtained by the Washington Post and similar to draft executive orders published by Vox last week, would count any need-based social service benefits (rather than just cash benefits) when determining if an immigrant can be denied entry to the United States. So immigrants could be denied a visa if officials determine they’re likely to need Medicaid. They could be deported if they do. And their relatives would have to reimburse the government. All this, as Vox’s Dara Lind writes, is part of a worldview that sees immigrants as a drain on American society rather than a net benefit.
  • The other draft order relates to legal immigration: It would generally make work visa programs more limited, including denying H-1B visas for high-skilled immigrants to their spouses, and trying to ensure that those visas are really attracting “the best and the brightest” rather than to companies that outsource jobs. Another would direct the Department of Homeland Security to improve monitoring of foreign students.
  • Meanwhile, in Congress, two of Trump’s more controversial nominees ran into trouble — another situation that’s less unique than much of the politics of the last week. Senate Democrats boycotted a committee hearing that was to vote on Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin and Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Price, citing concerns about both nominees’ ethics. The broader context here, though, is that Democrats are under pressure to do more to stand up to Trump in the wake of the executive order on immigration.
  • Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Education secretary, made it through a committee vote along party lines, but two Republicans — Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — expressed serious concerns about her nomination. And multiple senators mentioned the volume of calls they’ve gotten from constituents opposed to DeVos. DeVos has been a major target for activists, and the pressure seems to be working. If Democrats continue to stay united along party lines against her, and Murkowski and Collins both vote no on the floor, her confirmation is suddenly much less of a sure thing.