WASHINGTON, April 6 (Reuters) - Senate Republicans on Thursday crushed a Democratic blockade of President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee in a fierce partisan brawl, approving a rule change dubbed the "nuclear option" to allow for conservative judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation by Friday.
With ideological control of the nation's highest court at stake, the Republican-led Senate voted 52-48 along party lines to change its long-standing rules in order to prohibit a procedural tactic called a filibuster against Supreme Court nominees. That came after Republicans failed by a 55-45 tally to muster the 60-vote super-majority needed to end the Democratic filibuster that had sought to deny Gorsuch confirmation to the lifetime post.
The Senate paved the way for senators to confirm Gorsuch by simple majority. Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The rule change has been dubbed the "nuclear option" because it has been considered an extreme break with Senate traditions, and Trump has encouraged McConnell to "go nuclear."
"This will be the first and last partisan filibuster of the Supreme Court," Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor, accusing Democrats of trying to inflict political damage on Trump and to keep more conservatives from joining the high court.
"In 20 or 30 or 40 years, we will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court, a day when we irrevocably moved further away from the principles our founders intended for these institutions: principles of bipartisanship, moderation and consensus," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Schumer ridiculed McConnell's contention that the Democratic action was unprecedented, noting that the Republican-led Senate last year refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland for the same high court seat that Trump elected Gorsuch to fill.
Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat court's 5-4 conservative majority, enable Trump to leave an indelible mark on America's highest judicial body and fulfill a top campaign promise by the Republican president. Gorsuch could be expected to serve for decades.
The court's ideological leaning could help determine the outcome of cases involving the death penalty, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations, transgender rights, voting rights, immigration, religious liberty, presidential powers and more.
The nine-seat Supreme Court has had a vacancy since conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.
Republicans have called Gorsuch superbly qualified and one of the most distinguished appellate judges on the bench, and they blamed the Democrats for politicizing the confirmation process.
Democrats accused Gorsuch of being so conservative as to be outside the judicial mainstream, favoring corporate interests over ordinary Americans in legal opinions, and displaying insufficient independence from Trump.
"This isn't really about the nominee anyway," McConnell said. "The opposition to this particular nominee is more about the man who nominated him and the party he represents than the nominee himself."
What Republicans did to Obama's nominee Garland was worse than a filibuster, Schumer said. Schumer said Republicans denied "the constitutional prerogative of a president with 11 months left in his term."
"The nuclear option was used by Senator McConnell when he stopped Merrick Garland. What we face today is the fallout," Democratic Senator Richard Durbin added on the Senate floor.
McConnell blamed the escalation of fights over judicial nominees on the Democrats and their opposition starting three decades ago to nominees made by Republican former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
McConnell called the Democratic effort against Gorsuch "another extreme escalation in the left's never-ending drive to politicize the court and the confirmation process." He accused Gorsuch's opponents of "a singular aim: securing raw power no matter the cost to the country or the institution."
The 60-vote threshold that gives the minority party power to hold up the majority party has forced the Senate over the decades to try to achieve bipartisanship in legislation and presidential appointments.
The filibuster in one form or another dates back to the 19th century but assumed its current form in the 1970s.
While Democrats opposed the rule change and accused Republicans of a power grab, it was the Democrats who first resorted to the nuclear option when they controlled the Senate in 2013. In the face of Republican filibusters of Obama appointments, they barred filibusters for executive branch nominees and federal judges aside from Supreme Court justices but still allowed it for Supreme Court nominees and legislation.
The Republican-backed rule change on Thursday maintains the ability to filibuster legislation.
In the past, the nuclear option has been averted when moderates in the two parties compromised to avoid a showdown, but the ferocious partisanship in Washington now made that impossible.
Experts said eliminating the filibuster for Supreme Court appointments could make it more likely that presidents, with little incentive to choose centrist justices who could attract support from the other party, will pick ideologically extreme nominees in the future.
Ending the filibuster also would make it easier for future Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed when the president and Senate leadership belong to the same party.
With the failure of Republican healthcare legislation in Congress and with federal courts blocking the president's ban on people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, securing Gorsuch's confirmation took on even greater importance for Trump, who took office in January.