Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick won approval Monday from a Senate panel, but a historic showdown loomed as Democrats secured enough votes to block the nomination.
The growing opposition to Neil Gorsuch by Democrats means Republicans are likely to ram through a deeply controversial change to Senate rules in order to ensure his confirmation as the next Supreme Court justice.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 along strict party lines to send the nomination of Gorsuch, a federal appellate judge, to the full Senate.
The next step in the process, expected this week, is a crucial one: a procedural motion that requires 60 votes to end debate in the 100-member chamber and allow for an up-or-down vote on the nomination.
But Democrats are likely to prevent Gorsuch from passing that threshold, as 41 senators are now expected to join the so-called filibuster against moving the nomination forward.
"I will not, I cannot support advancing this nomination," Senator Patrick Leahy told the committee.
Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate, so they need eight Democrats to back Gorsuch, named by Trump to fill the seat of conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.
To date, just four Democrats -- moderates from states won by Trump in last year's election -- have announced their support.
Should Democrats block Gorsuch, it will be the first time in the nation's history that a filibuster has succeeded against a nominee to the Supreme Court, whose justices are appointed for life terms.
Trump's Republicans have threatened to respond by deploying "the nuclear option" -- altering longstanding Senate rules in order to advance the nomination of a Supreme Court justice by simple majority.
"Judge Gorsuch is going to be confirmed. The way in which that occurs is in the hands of the Democratic minority," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Fox News Sunday.
The White House weighed in after Monday's committee vote to say Trump "would support" use of the nuclear option if necessary.
But White House spokesman Sean Spicer sought to pin the blame on Democrats for triggering it.
"I think Democrats are setting a very dangerous precedent when it comes to how they want to do this," Spicer said.
- Democrats 'haven't forgotten' -
Democrats remain livid over the treatment of Merrick Garland, then-president Barack Obama's pick to replace Scalia.
McConnell refused to hold votes on Garland for most of last year. When Trump won the election, Garland's nomination died.
"I haven't forgotten the injustice done to Judge Merrick Garland, and neither have any of my colleagues," Senator Chris Coons told the committee, as he became the all-important 41st Democrat to join the filibuster.
But Coons warned against changing Senate rules, saying he remained open to a compromise.
"The traditions and principles that have defined the Senate are crumbling, and we are poised to hasten that destruction this week," he said.
Just as changing the rules would currently aid Trump, Republicans have warned about a boomerang effect -- Democrats ramming through liberal justices once the GOP loses the White House.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer has called on Republicans not to change the rules, but for Trump to replace Gorsuch with a consensus nominee.
"We're not going to change the nominee," said Senate Republican Lindsey Graham.
"If we have to, we will change the rules, and it looks like we're going to have to."
Republicans and Democrats have blamed each other for the collapse of traditions that saw most modern-day Supreme Court justices confirmed with at least some support from both parties.
Senators used Monday's four-hour markup session to make their case for or against Gorsuch, with Democrats highlighting Gorsuch's reluctance to answer several basic questions during several days of hearings last month.