WASHINGTON (AP) — Neil Gorsuch's ascension to the Supreme Court was vindication for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, whose risky bet more than a year ago paid off big time for President Donald Trump and the Kentucky senator himself.
When Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, McConnell decided immediately that the Senate would not fill the seat until the next president was elected. McConnell never wavered. He ignored Democratic griping, misgivings from fellow Republicans, and ultimately erroneous predictions that GOP Senate candidates would pay a political price.
Now McConnell can take credit for allowing Trump to put a young conservative on the court for life, even though it took changing Senate rules to do it.
"No. 1, it's courageous. No. 2, it's genius, in that order, because he knew how much criticism he would get," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
Democrats and some Republicans predicted dire fallout from McConnell's divisive Senate rules change that removed the 60-vote filibuster barrier for Supreme Court picks, and they warned of a more polarized Senate and court over time. But most in the GOP were full of praise for their wily leader.
"Mitch did what he thought was the right thing at the time, and I think the American people agreed with it, as was evidenced by the outcome of the election," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. "And now we have a great justice on the Supreme Court."
Frustrated Democrats grudgingly acknowledged that McConnell got what he wanted and delivered for his party, even as they insisted that the damage done to the Senate in the process would not quickly be forgotten.
The next time Democrats control the White House and the Senate, they could be the ones to benefit from the rules change enacted under McConnell. That's because the change will apply to all future Supreme Court nominees, too, eliminating any need for input from the minority party in making confirmations to the high court.
"The Republicans engaged in historic obstructionism that made it possible for this confirmation process to be conducted," said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. "We now have a radical right-wing justice on the Supreme Court. And I think that was their goal all along. So it is successful."
Some Republicans say the vacancy was an important factor in Trump's victory in November because the prospect of putting a conservative on the court helped evangelicals and other voters overcome their misgivings about Trump. In exit polls 21 percent of voters called Supreme Court appointments "the most important factor" in their vote, and among those people 56 percent voted for Trump.
McConnell told reporters Friday that "the most consequential decision I've ever been involved in was the decision to let the president being elected last year pick the Supreme Court nominee."
It was a gamble. McConnell said after the election that he didn't think Trump had a chance of winning or Republicans of holding their Senate majority.
McConnell and other senators also expressed the hope that after the bitter fight over Gorsuch, the Senate can get back on a more bipartisan course. That will be necessary to pass spending bills to keep the lights on in government by an April 28 midnight deadline.
McConnell pledged to preserve the 60-vote filibuster threshold on regular legislation, as opposed to nominations, which will continue to act as a tool forcing bipartisan outcomes and ensuring participation from the minority party.
As for Gorsuch, 49, he will be sworn in Monday and jump into cases of consequence, including one involving separation of church and state that the justices will take up in less than two weeks. Gorsuch is a veteran of Denver's 10th U.S. Circuit of Appeals with a history of conservative rulings that make him an intellectual heir to Scalia.
"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 Friday 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 is expected to join a conservative-leaning voting bloc of justices, making five on the nine-member court.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Mary Clare Jalonick, Stephen Ohlemacher and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.