Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp on Thursday became the first Democrats to support the confirmation of President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, giving Republicans two of eight Democratic votes needed to avoid a nasty fight on the U.S. Senate floor next week.
Both West Virginia's Manchin and North Dakota's Heitkamp are up for re-election next year in states that voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
"I hold no illusions that I will agree with every decision Judge Gorsuch may issue in the future, but I have not found any reasons why this jurist should not be a Supreme Court justice," Manchin said in a statement.
"He has a record as a balanced, meticulous and well-respected jurist who understands the rule of law," Heitkamp said in a statement.
Another Democrat seen as on the fence, Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington state, said on Thursday she would back an effort to block Gorsuch's confirmation.
If confirmed by the Senate to fill a vacancy created by the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch would restore the nine-seat high court's conservative majority at a time when Republicans control Congress and the White House. At age 49, he could be expected to serve for decades.
As of Thursday, 33 of the 48 Democrats in the 100-seat Senate had announced opposition to Gorsuch, the Colorado-based federal appellate judge nominated by Trump in January for a lifetime post on the Supreme Court.
Most have said they would back an effort to block a confirmation vote using a procedural hurdle called a filibuster that requires 60 votes to allow a confirmation vote.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on sending the nomination to the Senate floor on April 3. Republican Senate leaders hope to confirm Gorsuch on April 7.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48, meaning they need to win over eight Democrats to block a filibuster. The confirmation vote itself would require a simple majority.
Thirteen Democrats have yet to announce whether they would vote against Gorsuch or support a filibuster.
Some Democrats have said Republicans "stole" a Supreme Court seat last year when the Senate refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Scalia, appellate judge Merrick Garland.
Earlier on Thursday, Manchin said in a brief interview with Reuters that he met late on Wednesday with Gorsuch. It was a follow-up meeting for the West Virginia Democrat. The Wednesday meeting was intended to be more detailed than the introductory session the two had early in the confirmation process, Manchin said.
The Senate's second-ranking Republican, John Cornyn, said "Good for him" when told of Manchin's decision.
"My hope has always been that there would be a few people who would say, 'Look, I’m going to vote to give the judge an up-or-down vote, and that would start a landslide - or at least eight,” Cornyn said in the Capitol basement.
“Praise the Lord,” Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said when told of Manchin's decision on Gorsuch.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Timothy Ahmann; Editing by Eric Beech)