Panel expected to back Trump high court pick, set up Senate showdown
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee was poised on Monday to approve President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, for a full Senate vote later in the week, setting up a political showdown as Democrats work to block his confirmation.
The panel began its meeting and was set to vote after its members spoke on Gorsuch’s nomination. Republicans hold a 11-9 majority on the committee, which held a four-day confirmation hearing last month, and control the Senate by a 52-48 margin.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, announced her opposition to Gorsuch, a conservative appeals court judge from Colorado who the Republican president nominated to the lifetime job as a justice in January.
Democrats are planning to use a procedural hurdle called a filibuster that requires a super-majority of 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate to cut off debate and allow a confirmation vote. The actual confirmation vote would be by a simple majority if the filibuster is stopped.
Feinstein’s office said she would support a filibuster. Forty Democratic senators have come out against Gorsuch but not all have made clear that they would support a filibuster.
The committee’s chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley, defended Gorsuch as a mainstream jurist worthy of confirmation despite the complaints of many Democrats, and that “there isn’t a whole lot of mystery” that the panel will approve the nomination.
Feinstein said this was not a “routine nomination,” noting that the Republican-led Senate last year flatly refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama’s nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill the same high court vacancy.
“There was simply no reason that the nomination of Judge Garland could not proceed, other than to deny the then-president of the United States, President Barack Obama, the ability to fill the seat,” Feinstein said.
Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat high court’s conservative majority, fulfilling one of Trump’s top campaign promises.
Feinstein criticized Gorsuch’s rulings in cases involving a fired truck driver and an autistic child and faulted his actions as a lawyer in Republican former President George W. Bush’s Justice Department regarding detainee interrogation techniques critics called torture.
Feinstein also said she was disturbed by the millions of dollars of “dark money” from anonymous donors backing advertising and political advocacy by conservative advocacy groups to help Gorsuch win confirmation.
Democrats have accused Gorsuch of being insufficiently independent of Trump, evading questions on key Supreme Court rulings of the past including on abortion and political spending, and favoring corporate interests over ordinary Americans.
Committee Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said Gorsuch was “excruciatingly evasive” during his confirmation hearing. He called Gorsuch’s approach to responding to the committee “patronizing. It’s a disservice to the American people and a blight on the confirmation process.”
To date, three Democrats have said they support Gorsuch, and the Republicans would have to secure eight Democratic votes to kill a filibuster.
‘WILL NOT STICK’
“Over the last couple months, the nominee’s opponents have tried to find fault with him. That fault will not stick,” Grassley said.
“Judge Gorsuch is by any measure a superbly qualified nominee,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a committee Republican. “He will be impartial, fair and open-minded.”
Gorsuch was nominated to fill a vacancy created by the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
Republican Senate leaders insist Gorsuch will be confirmed on Friday regardless of what the Democrats do. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said it appears highly unlikely that Republicans would get the 60 votes they need to end a filibuster.
If Republicans cannot win over eight Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could force a vote by changing long-standing Senate rules to allow for a simple majority vote for confirmation of Supreme Court justices, a move sometimes called the “nuclear option” that Trump has urged.
While Gorsuch’s opponents would fight such a rule change, it was the Democrats who in 2013 changed the Senate rules to limit filibusters after Republican use of the procedure against nominees selected by Democratic former President Barack Obama. The Senate, then led by Democrats, barred filibusters for executive branch nominees and federal judges aside from Supreme Court justices.
Gorsuch, if confirmed, would immediately be thrust into the high court’s current term, which runs from October to June. If he is confirmed on Friday, he would be able to participate in the court’s next round of oral arguments in pending cases, starting on April 17.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Susan Heavey and Pete Schroeder; Editing by Will Dunham)