JUDY WOODRUFF: There is growing talk tonight of possible U.S. military action against the government of Syria. That comes as new evidence has emerged that an attack that killed more than 80 people this week involved chemical weapons.
William Brangham has our report.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The images themselves left little doubt that this was a chemical weapons attack. Now Turkey says postmortems on three victims who were brought across the border confirm it.
BEKIR BOZDAG, Turkish Justice Minister (through interpreter): With this scientific examination, it has been determined that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has used a chemical weapon.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, in Damascus, Syria’s foreign minister again denied responsibility. Instead, he charged that militants linked to al-Qaida had the toxic agents in a warehouse, which was then hit by a government airstrike.
WALID MOALLEM, Syrian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): I confirm to you once again that the Syrian Arab army has not and will not use this type of weapon against our people and our children, and not even against the terrorists.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Russia has been Syria’s main ally, and, today President Vladimir Putin warned against assigning blame until there’s a — quote — “thorough and unbiased investigation.”
Meanwhile, Putin’s spokesman seemed to suggest that Moscow’s backing for Syria’s Assad may not be permanent.
DMITRY PESKOV, Spokesman for Vladimir Putin: I don’t think it’s correct to say about unconditional support. Unconditional support is not possible in the current world.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Earlier this week, the White House said removing Assad was no longer an option. But, today, Secretary of State Tillerson said there is no role for Assad in governing Syria, and Russia should reconsider its support of him.
And asked if the U.S. was organizing a coalition to remove the Syrian leader, Tillerson said:
REX TILLERSON, U.S. Secretary of State: Those steps are under way.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And, on Air Force One today, President Trump said of Assad:
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so I guess something should happen.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Officials say Defense Secretary James Mattis may discuss military options with the president in Florida.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The day’s other major story came in the United States Senate, where the stage is now set to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
Republicans swept aside the main obstacle, as partisan tensions peaked.
Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.
LISA DESJARDINS: As a dark downpour hit outside, inside, a long-brewing manmade storm burst.
WOMAN: On the nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch of Colorado to be an associate justice to the Supreme Court of the United States.
LISA DESJARDINS: First, Republicans tried, and failed, to get the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster blocking Gorsuch.
MAN: The motion is not agreed to.
LISA DESJARDINS: With that, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell launched a series of historic parliamentary acrobatics to remove that 60-vote requirement altogether.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-K.Y., Majority Leader: I raise a point of order that the vote on cloture…
LISA DESJARDINS: Within 90 minutes, Republicans voted for the so-called nuclear option, to reinterpret the rules and change precedent, so that a simple majority could guarantee a Supreme Court spot.
McConnell insisted Republicans were in the right.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-K.Y., Majority Leader: It’s part of a much larger story, another extreme escalation in the left’s never-ending drive to politicize the courts and the confirmation process.
LISA DESJARDINS: Republicans stressed that former Democratic Leader Harry Reid opened the door to this by lowering the threshold for all other nominees four years ago. Current Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer argued the Supreme Court is different.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: The nuclear option means the end of a long history of consensus on Supreme Court nominations. It weakens the standing of the Senate as a whole as a check on the president’s ability to shape the judiciary.
LISA DESJARDINS: The shift today came after a constellation of conservative groups spent millions on ads supporting Gorsuch. Opponents ran fewer ads and instead turned out calls and e-mails.
California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said she received 112,000 calls on Gorsuch, overwhelmingly against. In the end, it exposed a Senate not just divided, but bitterly so.
Delaware’s Chris Coons:
SEN. CHRIS COONS, D-Del.: We simply do not trust each other anymore. And without trust, we will not rebuild what’s necessary to sustain this body. Now, everyone likes to point the finger at the other side as the source of this distress. The reality is, there is abundant blame to go around.
LISA DESJARDINS: Even Republican Johnny Isakson warned this could lead to changing the 60-vote consensus required on most legislation.
SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON, R-Ga.: If we move towards a body that’s a rubber stamp of the House or unicameral government of legislation, we will never be the United States of America our founding fathers intended us to be.
LISA DESJARDINS: Democrat Coons and Republican Susan Collins are gathering signatures on a letter to protect the 60-vote threshold for legislation. As for Judge Gorsuch, the next vote will be final confirmation.
That is expected tomorrow evening.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In other news: China’s President Xi Jinping arrived in Florida today for a high-stakes summit with President Trump.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson greeted Xi and his wife. Mr. Trump arrived later and went to his Mar-a-Lago estate, where the meetings will be held. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program could top the agenda. Mr. Trump said today that he thinks China — quote — “will want to be stepping up to deal with that.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes stepped aside from leading a probe of Russian meddling in last year’s election. He’s now facing ethic complaints of mishandling classified information. In a statement, Nunes said: “The charges are entirely false and politically motivated,” but that he’s acting in the best interests of the committee.
House Speaker Paul Ryan met with Nunes last night, and said today he agrees with the move.
REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: I think Chairman Nunes wants to make sure that this is not a distraction to a very important investigation. So, he wants to go clear himself while this investigation continues on without any kinds of distractions.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Adam Schiff, had accused Nunes of placing his loyalty to President Trump before the needs of the investigation.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-Calif.: I just want to express my appreciation for what the chairman decided to do. I’m sure it was a very difficult decision for him. But, as he mentioned, I think it is in the best interests of the investigation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Three other Republicans, Representatives Mike Conaway, with help from Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, will now see oversee the Russia investigation. Nunes will remain as chair of the committee.
Wall Street managed small gains today. The Dow Jones industrial average was up 14 points to close near 20662. The Nasdaq also rose 14, and the S&P 500 added four.
John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in space, was laid to rest today at Arlington National Cemetery. His flag-draped casket was wrapped in plastic under a steady rain, as it was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the grave site. The former Ohio senator died in December at the age of 95. His wife, Annie, now 97, and family scheduled the burial on what would have been the Glenns’ 74th wedding anniversary.
And the grandmaster of insult comedy, Don Rickles, died today at his Los Angeles home. From stand-up stage to late shows, Rickles used everything from ethnic humor to sex jokes on everyone, from presidents to fellow entertainers, including Sammy Davis Jr. in 1975.
DON RICKLES, Comedian: I love the Italian people. I will never forget the words of Carma Indanganazo, who said to me in Brooklyn on a Saturday night…
DON RICKLES: No, you’re Catholic, and I’m a Jew. And, Sammy, you’re black. I’m sorry.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Don Rickles was 90 years old.