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Supreme Court Battle Puts the Senate at DEFCON 1

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter

Supreme Court battle puts Senate at DEFCON 1

You can argue about who fired the first shot in judicial filibuster wars (was it Senate Democrats, who tried to deny 60 votes for some of George W. Bush’s lower-court picks in the early 2000s? Or Senate Republicans, who stalled Barack Obama’s lower-court nominees before Democrats changed the 60-vote rule, and who refused to give Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing?)

Neil Gorsuch nomination 'a silly fight for Democrats to pick,' analyst says 3:13

Regardless of who’s to blame, this back-and-forth over the last 16 years is likely to culminate this week in the so-called “nuclear option” being deployed for a Supreme Court pick — that is, Senate Republicans will change the rules prohibiting Democrats from requiring 60 votes to move Neil Gorsuch’s nomination.

“It's highly, highly unlikely that he'll get 60,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on “Meet the Press” yesterday. “What I can tell you is that Neil Gorsuch will be confirmed this week. How that happens really depends on our Democratic friends,” countered Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on “Meet.”

The action begins today, when the Senate Judiciary Committee votes Gorsuch’s nomination out of committee. “The next step is for the full Senate to consider his nomination, a process that could move the Senate into unprecedented territory,” NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell writes.

Why the Senate’s 60-vote threshold matters

It’s a legitimate question to ask: What’s the big deal about the 60-vote threshold? Why shouldn’t the U.S. Senate operate under a simple majority? “The purpose of the [60-vote] rule is to promote bipartisanship and consensus, which in turn creates legitimacy and buy-in for policy and governance. If the filibuster goes away, so does yet another layer of collegiality in Congress — and another way to shore up Washington’s credibility,” the Washington Post’s Paul Kane said last week.

“It would be the second time in 3½ years that the Senate majority has breached the long-held standard of first clearing a two-thirds majority vote to alter the chamber’s rules. The first time Democrats, then led by Harry M. Reid (Nev.), ended 60-vote filibusters for all nominees except those for the Supreme Court.”

And if the filibuster for the Supreme Court goes, you could reasonably assume that the last remaining filibuster — for legislation — will eventually go, too. But both McConnell and Schumer denied that possibility. ​“I don't think the legislative filibuster is in danger,” McConnell said. “I don't think there's any thirst to change the legislative rules,” Schumer agreed. But given the recent history, are we so sure?

Gorsuch needs support from eight Democrats to get to 60 votes, and he’s short of that

To get 60 votes, Gorsuch needs support from eight Democrats (with Republicans holding just a 52-48 majority in the Senate). And right now, he’s way short of that. Here’s the whip count from NBC’s Frank Thorp:

Democrats who support Gorsuch and cloture (3)

  • Joe Manchin
  • Heidi Heitkamp
  • Joe Donnelly

Democrats who oppose Gorsuch but are undecided on cloture (2)

  • Pat Leahy
  • Ben Cardin

Democrats against Gorsuch and cloture (37)

  • Chuck Schumer
  • Bob Casey
  • Bernie Sanders
  • Tammy Baldwin
  • Tom Carper
  • Jeff Merkley
  • Ron Wyden
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Ed Markey
  • Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Kamala Harris
  • Patty Murray
  • Tom Udall
  • Sherrod Brown
  • Sheldon Whitehouse
  • Jack Reed
  • Al Franken
  • Bill Nelson
  • Mazie Hirono
  • Debbie Stabenow
  • Gary Peters
  • Dick Durbin
  • Cory Booker
  • Chris Van Hollen
  • Chris Murphy
  • Jeanne Shaheen
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Maggie Hassan
  • Tim Kaine
  • Martin Heinrich
  • Maria Cantwell
  • Catherine Cortez Masto
  • Tammy Duckworth
  • Richard Blumenthal
  • Brian Schatz
  • Claire McCaskill
  • Jon Tester

Democrats who are undecided/unannounced (6)

  • Michael Bennet
  • Chris Coons
  • Dianne Feinstein
  • Angus King
  • Bob Menendez
  • Mark Warner

Kushner to Iraq (before Trump’s Secretary of State has traveled there)

“Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, is in Iraq, a senior U.S. official told NBC News on Sunday,” per NBC’s Peter Alexander and Alex Johnson. “The source said Kushner is traveling with Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The visit wasn't announced in advance, and no information on the purpose of the trip was immediately available.”

Notably, however, Kushner is traveling to Iraq before Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, does. “Mr. Kushner is traveling on behalf of the president to express the president's support and commitment to the government of Iraq and U.S. personnel currently engaged in the campaign,” a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, according to NBC’s Courtney Kube.

Defector says North Korea is prepared to use nuclear weapons against U.S., allies

“A senior North Korean defector has told NBC News that the country's ‘desperate’ dictator is prepared to use nuclear weapons to strike the United States and its allies," per NBC’s Lester Holt and Alexander Smith.

“Thae Yong Ho is the most high profile North Korean defector in two decades, meaning he is able to give a rare insight into the secretive, authoritarian regime. According to Thae, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is ‘desperate in maintaining his rule by relying on his [development of] nuclear weapons and ICBM.’ He was using an acronym for intercontinental ballistic missiles — a long range rocket that in theory would be capable of hitting the U.S. ‘Once he sees that there is any kind of sign of a tank or an imminent threat from America, then he would use his nuclear weapons with ICBM, he added in an exclusive interview on Sunday.”

Michael Flynn initially failed to disclose Russia-related speaking fees

“Before resigning under pressure as President Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn submitted a personal financial disclosure form to federal ethics officials that failed to note speaking fees he received from Russia-related entities in 2015, new filings show,” the Washington Post says.

“Flynn later noted the payments on an amended form he signed Friday that listed among his sources of income the Russian government-backed television network RT, a U.S. air cargo company affiliated with the Volga-Dnepr Group and the U.S. subsidiary of Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab.”

What were other presidents doing on April 3?