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Senate Republican leader starts clock ticking to showdown on Gorsuch

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Moving toward a climactic showdown over President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee, the top Senate Republican said on Tuesday he would start the clock ticking toward a vote to cut off a Democratic effort to block conservative judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's motion would set up a vote, expected on Thursday, to try to thwart the Democrats' use of a procedural hurdle called a filibuster requiring a super-majority of 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to end debate on Gorsuch's nomination and move to a final up-or-down vote on confirmation.

Democrats on Monday amassed the votes needed to support a filibuster blocking a confirmation vote under current Senate rules. But McConnell is expected to move to change the long-standing rules and forbid filibusters for Supreme Court nominees, then hold a confirmation vote on Friday requiring a simple majority.

Republicans hold a 52-48 Senate majority.

"Democrats are now being pushed by far-left interest groups into doing something truly detrimental to this body and to our country," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "They seem to be hurtling toward the abyss this time, and trying to take the Senate with them. They need to reconsider."

The proposed rule change has been dubbed the "nuclear option," and the Republican president has urged McConnell to do it.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, leading the filibuster effort in the chamber controlled by Republicans, shot back that it was the Republicans who bear responsibility for the crisis.

He noted that the Senate, under McConnell's guidance, refused last year to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill the same high court vacancy that Trump has selected Gorsuch to fill.

'EVEN WORSE'

"What the majority leader did to Merrick Garland by denying him even a hearing and a vote is even worse than a filibuster," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "For him to accuse Democrats of the first partisan filibuster on the Supreme Court belies the facts, belies the history, belies the basic truth."

Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat high court's conservative majority, fulfilling one of Trump's top promises during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump in January nominated Gorsuch, a conservative appeals court judge from Colorado, to the lifetime job on the high court.

Both Garland and Gorsuch were nominated to fill a vacancy created by the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Democrats have accused the Republicans of "stealing" a Supreme Court seat by stonewalling Garland.

Had Garland been confirmed, the court would have tilted to the left for the first time in decades. As it stands, the court is split with four conservative justices and four liberals.

Republicans have said Gorsuch is well qualified for the job and is one of the most distinguished federal judges on the bench. Democrats have said he is so conservative as to be outside the judicial mainstream.

"First, he has instinctively favored corporate interests over average Americans," Schumer said. "Second, he hasn't shown a scintilla of independence from President Trump. And third ... he was hand-picked by hard-right special interest groups."

The 60-vote super-majority threshold that gives the minority party power to hold up the majority party has over the decades forced the Senate to try to achieve bipartisanship in legislation and presidential appointments.

The court's ideological shift to the right could prove pivotal on a range of issues including presidential powers, abortion, the death penalty, political spending and environmental regulation, as well as transgender, gun and religious rights.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Tim Ahmann; Editing by Will Dunham)