Judge Neil Gorsuch made his first trip to Capitol Hill as President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning for a series of meetings in a sharply divided Senate that will decide his fate in the coming months.
Accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, Gorsuch met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He also planned to meet with McConnell’s top deputy, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as well as Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., according to Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for the judge.
“The president made an outstanding appointment, we’re all thrilled and looking forward to getting the confirmation process started,” said McConnell.
The White House requested that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., also meet with Gorsuch. But Schumer aides requested more time before holding a sit-down. Gorsuch may also meet Wednesday with Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Bonjean said.
The contrasting approaches to Gorsuch on his first full day as the nominee underscored the politically charged fight quickly forming around him. It is shaping up as one of the defining battles of Trump’s nascent presidency.
Republicans are hoping to confirm the U.S. Court of Appeals judge by early April before a two-week Easter recess, which would clear the way for him to participate in the final cases of the court’s term ending in June. But already, Democrats are ramping up their opposition efforts.
Schumer and several colleagues have declared that Gorsuch would need to earn at least 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles to earn a final confirmation vote. Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate.
“I plan to stand up for individuals over corporations and oppose his nomination, and I will insist that his nomination meet a traditional 60 vote threshold,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a Wednesday morning statement.
Republican leaders have publicly pressured Democrats to allow Gorsuch a simple up-or-down vote without having to first win a supermajority. They have been agonizing over whether to change long-standing Senate rules to break Democratic resistance, should it come to that point.
GOP leaders are already feeling the heat from Trump and supporters yearning to swiftly add a conservative voice to the court for the first time since the presidency of George W. Bush.
“Listen, I don’t disagree with the idea that the Senate has a tradition of unlimited debate,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, intellectual property and the Internet. “But you get your butt on the floor and you stand there for the unlimited debate. What it has devolved to is undemocratic.”
Most senators don’t know Gorsuch well. Just 31 of them were in office in July 2006 when he was confirmed without opposition to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which has jurisdiction over all or parts of eight western states.
After Trump nominated Gorsuch Tuesday night at the White House, Schumer issued a statement saying “the burden is on Judge Neil Gorsuch to prove himself to be within the legal mainstream.” Schumer added that he has “very serious doubts” about whether Gorsuch could meet his requirements.
At the center of the political battle over Gorsuch are a handful of Democratic senators who could go either way.
“I think he should not be treated as Obama’s nominee was treated, he should be given a hearing and a vote in committee,” Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., said Wednesday morning, referring to Judge Merrick Garland.” Let’s follow the process, let’s do what didn’t happen last year.”
Unlike Schumer, Coons didn’t endorse forcing Gorsuch to face a 60-vote threshold for advancement. But he acknowledged that it probably the bar Gorsuch will have to clear.
Gorsuch’s first call after being nominated was to Garland, “out of respect,” said Bonjean.
After his meeting with McConnell, Pence took Gorsuch on a tour of the Capitol, stopping in the Rotunda where he took a picture with Senate pages. Gorsuch once served as a page, an organizer for the pages said.
On his way out of the Rotunda, a group of eighth-grade girls from a school in Bethesda waved and told him “congratulations.” He shook one of their hands and said: “Thank you very much. Someday you’ll be doing this.”
As Gorsuch acquainted himself with Senate, the political battle outside the walls of Congress was already underway. The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative nonprofit organization serving as an outside ally to McConnell’s leadership team, launched a $2 million ad campaign Tuesday in North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Montana – all Trump states represented by a Democratic senator.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network, said the organization plans to defend Gorsuch and also warn Democrats against joining a campaign of “obstructionism.”
“Those senators are going to have a tough choice before them,” she said.
Republicans will need all the Democratic support they can muster. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., suggested in recent days that he would try to mount a filibuster as payback to Republicans who blocked former president Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, for almost the entirety of 2016.
“This is a stolen seat,” Merkley said in a statement Tuesday night.
There is also outside pressure to stop Gorsuch from the Democratic side of the political spectrum. The Center for American Progress, for example, warned Democrats on Tuesday not to relent.
“The only reason that Trump can name this Supreme Court justice is because of the unconscionable actions by Senate Republicans in refusing to even hold a hearing” for Garland, the group said in a memo to senators. “Rewarding such behavior by confirming a radical nominee should not even be an option for Democrats.”
If Democrats stand firm in their resistance and Republicans are unable to round up 60 votes, McConnell will face a dilemma: Will he spearhead a rules-change maneuver known on Capitol Hill as “the nuclear option,” or will his devotion to Senate tradition lead him to give up on Trump’s nominee.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who is among the closely watched group of centrist Democrats, said he does not agree with the dogmatic standard that Merkley and others are imposing to block any Trump nominee. Tester said he was willing to vote for the nominee if the person met his credentials.
“I’ll see who he nominates and then we’ll do our due diligence,” Tester said before Trump announced his nominee.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who represents a state Trump won by more than 40 points, has urged his Democratic colleagues “to put partisan process aside and allow the process to proceed.”
Gorsuch will be shepherded across Capitol Hill by former senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a moderate Republican who lost reelection in November and will lead a team of veteran GOP political operatives overseeing the confirmation fight. Ayotte was with Gorsuch as he made the rounds on the Hill Wednesday morning.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Sean Sullivan, Ed O’Keefe, Karoun Demirjian