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Thune: Republicans had no choice but to change Senate rules for Gorsuch

April 6, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why he defends his party’s move to change Republican rules in order to pave the way for the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the potential for bipartisan cooperation for future legislative efforts, plus whether Congress is willing to get the U.S. involved militarily in the civil war in Syria.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now, for an opposing view on the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, I spoke with Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who defended his party’s move to change the Senate rules.

SEN. JOHN THUNE, R-S.D.: Well, we just weren’t left with any choices, Judy.

The Senate Democrats decided to filibuster this nominee, something that hasn’t been successfully done in the 230-year history of Senate, at least successfully done by one party.

They had the votes to block him. The only way we were going to be able to get an up-and-down vote on him, which is the history, the tradition of the Senate, was to make the rules change that enabled us to get to that up-and-down vote, which will occur sometime tomorrow.

But had that not happened, we wouldn’t get this vote, and I’m not sure we could get any vote. If we can’t get Neil Gorsuch across the finish line, I don’t know what Supreme Court nominee the Democrats would be willing to vote on in the next four years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as I’m sure you know, the Democrats are saying that he’s not a mainstream candidate. And they say that what’s really unprecedented was the treatment Republicans gave last year to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

So, they’re saying that what they are doing is no worse than what Republicans did last year.

SEN. JOHN THUNE: Well, Garland of course, you know, that issue got litigated during the campaign.

Our argument was people were already voting last year. It was a presidential year. And we ought to let people weigh in, have their voices heard, and let the new president pick the next Supreme Court nominee, which happened.

And I think, in terms of him being mainstream, it’s pretty hard to argue that he’s not mainstream, if you look at his time on the 10th Circuit. He’s been a part of 2,700 cases that were heard there; 99 percent of those times, he was in the majority; 97 percent of the time, the vote was unanimous.

And so the Democrats were hard-pressed to come up with an argument to make against him. And I realize part of it goes back to Garland, but I think, at the end of the day, we have got to move forward, not backward. And we have got a vacancy to fill. We just felt like this judge deserved an up-and-down vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Senate has not been seen, as you know, as partisan a body as the House of Representatives up until now. Do you think that has changed? Is that changing going forward?

SEN. JOHN THUNE: I’ll tell you, my view on that is that you’re right.

And a lot of people are sort of assessing, what’s the impact on the Senate? I think, by and large, this was sort of baked in. The Democrats changed the rules back in 2013 on lower court and appellate court nominees. And they basically had signaled last fall during the presidential campaign that, if they won, if Hillary Clinton had been elected president, and they had gotten the majority in the Senate, that they were going to change the rules on the Supreme Court.

So I think, for the most part, people on both sides realized this was likely to happen. And I think now it’s a question of getting this behind us and moving forward on a legislative agenda, where I do think we can find hopefully some bipartisan cooperation, because I think, more than anything else, the American people want to — they want to see us get results.

And that’s what we intend to do. And it’s going to take cooperation on both sides in order for that to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you don’t think that after this it’s going to be harder to work with Democrats to move forward in the Senate?

SEN. JOHN THUNE: It’s not my sense.

I think the Democrats did what they had to do because, obviously, there’s a lot of — their activists, their political base was very energized on this issue. But I talk with Democrats all the time, I work with Democrats all the time on legislation.

And, like I said, I think, for the most part, the assumption has been all along that, irrespective of who won that presidential election last fall, this is where we were going to end up, and particularly given the fact that, in 2013, they had initiated the first stage of this by doing away with the 50 — or the 60-vote threshold with respect to lower court and appellate court nods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, Senator, there’s another story we have been following today. And that is the chemical weapons attack in Syria the Trump administration is laying at the feet of the Assad regime.

We now have President Trump suggesting that perhaps there needs to be some sort of action taken. We are told the Pentagon is going to be briefing the president on possible military moves that could be made.

Are Republicans in the Congress prepared to get more deeply involved militarily in Syria, if it comes to that?

SEN. JOHN THUNE: I think there’s pretty strong sentiment on both sides of the aisle up here that this warrants a response.

You know, Assad has denied it. And, of course, the Russians have denied it, but it’s clear the intelligence that he is responsible for this attack. And the use of weapons of mass destruction, of chemical weapons on your own children is just something that’s a horrific act.

And I think that the international community, I hope, responds aggressively. And I believe that the United States will be looked to for leadership in terms of that response. And I’m not — I don’t think we ought to take any options off the table.

But I think this warrants a clear message from the international community and the United States that this kind of behavior is just not acceptable. And, ultimately, I believe he still — he has to go, but I think they’re looking at their options, and we will see what they ultimately decide to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it certainly does sound like they’re considering military steps.

SEN. JOHN THUNE: Well, if they did, I suspect it would be something that would be a limited strike designed probably to ground the air force, the Syrian air force, to take out some airstrips and that sort of thing.

And a lot of that could be done, I suppose, with cruise missiles. I’m not exactly sure what all is in the discussion. I don’t want to speculate about that.

But I do think there are ways that we can respond and that we can limit Assad’s ability to do these sorts of things to his own people in the future. And I think there is a humanitarian reason to respond that’s just pretty compelling, in light of some of these images that we have seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator John Thune, we thank you very much for talking with us.

SEN. JOHN THUNE: Thanks, Judy. Nice to be with you.

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