WASHINGTON (AP) — After weeks of turmoil, the Senate confirmed Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch as the Supreme Court's youngest justice Friday, filling a 14-month vacancy after the death of Antonin Scalia and restoring a rightward tilt that could last for years.
Gorsuch will be sworn in Monday and will quickly begin confronting cases of consequence, including one involving separation of church and state that the justices will take up in less than two weeks.
At 49, he is decades younger than several of the other justices — two are in their 80s and one is 78 — raising the possibility that President Donald Trump will have a chance to appoint more conservatives to a court that has been somewhat balanced in recent years.
Vice President Mike Pence was presiding as the Senate voted 54-45 in favor of Gorsuch, a veteran of Denver's 10th U.S. Circuit of Appeals whose conservative rulings make him an intellectual heir to Scalia, who died in February 2016. Republicans blocked Barack Obama from filling the seat all last year.
The outcome was a major victory for Trump, his first big congressional win. And it was cause for celebration for conservatives, who have often seemed willing to forgive various Trump failings next to the chance to win this lifetime appointment to the most important court on the land.
"As a deep believer in the rule of law, Judge Gorsuch will serve the American people with distinction," Trump said in a statement.
The judge won support from 51 of the chamber's Republicans as well as three moderate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won last fall: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana. GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who has been recovering from back surgery, did not vote.
Gorsuch's name was on a list of potential choices Trump produced during the campaign, and was vetted by conservative groups including the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. That unusual external review omitted consultation with Senate Democrats, contributing to bitter Democrat complaints about the way the whole process was handled.
Gorsuch is expected to join a conservative-leaning voting bloc of justices, making five on the nine-member court. As soon as April 13, he could take part in his first private conference, where justices decide whether to hear cases — and some of them could involve gun rights, voting rights and a Colorado baker's refusal to design a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding.
Friday's Senate vote was the final act in a corrosive political confrontation that began with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's decision immediately after Scalia's death to hold the seat open for the next president to fill, rather than convene hearings for Obama's nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
Democrats seethed for months over Garland's treatment, and under pressure from liberal activists fuming over the Trump presidency they mounted a filibuster Thursday to block Gorsuch. McConnell, R-Ky., immediately responded, as expected, by leading his Republicans in a unilateral rules change to lower the vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees from 60 to a simple majority in the 100-member Senate.
That paved the way for Gorsuch's confirmation vote Friday, but left lawmakers of both parties bemoaning the undoing of comity in the Senate and warning that the 60-vote filibuster barrier on regular legislation, a key tool to force bipartisan cooperation, could be next to go. McConnell vowed that would not happen on his watch.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said of the rules change that won approval: "It will make the cooling saucer of the Senate considerably hotter, and I believe it will make the Supreme Court a more partisan place."
But McConnell and some of his allies argued that they were simply returning to a time not long ago when judicial filibusters were rarely practiced and Supreme Court filibusters essentially unheard of.
"The practical result of where we are now is we're back to where we were as late as 2000," said McConnell, pointing out that even Clarence Thomas got onto the court without a filibuster, despite highly contentious confirmation hearings regarding sexual harassment claims from Anita Hill.
McConnell's decision last year to hold the Supreme Court seat open was seen as a gamble, questioned even by some in his party, but it's now viewed by Republicans as a political master stroke. McConnell told reporters Friday he viewed it as "the most consequential decision I've ever been involved in."
Some Republicans even credit the Supreme Court vacancy as one reason Trump won the November election. In exit polls, 21 percent of voters called Supreme Court appointments "the most important factor" for their votes, and among those people 56 percent voted for Trump.
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said of McConnell's tactic: "No. 1, it's courageous. No. 2 it's genius, in that order, because he knew how much criticism he would get."
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Mary Clare Jalonick, Stephen Ohlemacher and Matthew Daly contributed.