The United States Senate confirmed former Exxon-Mobil chief executive officer Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State on Wednesday.
Mr. Tillerson was confirmed after 56 senators - 52 Republicans, 3 Democrats, and one independent - voted in his favor. Democrats had questioned Mr. Tillerson over his business ties with Russia, as he spent years there working for Exxon Mobil.
Republicans unanimously backed the oil executive for the diplomatic post, saying his foreign business experience made him well qualified for the position.
In a related development, U.S. President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat.
Democrats have indicated that they would filibuster Mr. Gorsuch’s nomination, which would prevent him from securing the nomination.
A filibuster is a tactic used in the U.S. Senate to obstruct a particular measure – in this case, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice – from being brought to a vote. It generally involves extending the debate by delivering long speeches to the point where members leave the chamber and delay voting on the matter. The tactic is legal because senators are permitted to speak as long as they please before the matter is brought to a vote.
A filibuster can be overridden, however, if 60 out of the 100 senators vote to end the debate.
There are currently 52 Republican senators, 46 Democratic senators, and two independent senators in the chamber, so the Republicans will likely not be able to prevent the filibuster.
Intent on confirming Mr. Gorsuch, Mr. Trump has urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to change Senate rules so that filibusters for Supreme Court nominees would be illegal.
If Mr. Gorsuch were confirmed, it would tilt the balance of the Supreme Court in the Republicans’ favor. Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, the nine-person Supreme Court has been divided between four conservatives and four liberals, with the late Scalia’s seat remaining vacant. After the death of Mr. Scalia, Republicans blocked the confirmation of former President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland.
A conservative Supreme Court majority could prove to be crucial in issues pertaining to abortion, gun regulation, gay rights, religious rights and presidential powers.