WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch faces hours of questioning from senators as frustrated Democrats are determined to press him on everything from abortion and guns to his independence from President Donald Trump.
Republicans are unanimously supporting Gorsuch, and certain to give him what cover they can as he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for Day 2 of his confirmation hearings on Tuesday. But Democrats made clear on the first day that they were in no mood to “rubber stamp a nominee selected by extreme interest groups and nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes,” as Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont put it.
Gorsuch himself sought to emphasize his strong belief in the separation of powers in his opening statement, pledging to be independent or “hang up the robe.” Seeking to take the edge off Democratic complaints that he has favored the wealthy and powerful in more than 10 years as a federal judge, the 49-year-old Coloradan said he has tried to be a “neutral and independent” judge and has ruled both for and against disabled students, prisoners and workers alleging civil rights violations.
“My decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me, only my best judgment about the law and facts at issue in each particular case,” Gorsuch said.
The first day of the hearing was given over to opening statements, with questions saved for Tuesday, and Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, warned senators that the session could last 10 hours or more.
A Supreme Court confirmation hearing is a major occasion on Capitol Hill, but Monday's was overshadowed by a separate event in the Capitol complex. On the House side, FBI Director James Comey testified that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in last year's election and possible links and coordination between Russia and associates of Trump.
Blending the two hearings, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut referred to “a looming constitutional crisis” that the Supreme Court might need to resolve. The court's eight current justices are roughly divided ideologically between conservatives and liberals.
The Russian story line as well as Trump's verbal attacks on federal judges both during the campaign and as president have fed into Democratic efforts to force Gorsuch to break publicly with the man who nominated him. Gorsuch already has told some senators in private meetings that he found the criticism of the judges disheartening. But Blumenthal said the nominee needs to make a statement “publicly and explicitly and directly.”
For their part, Republicans uniformly portrayed Gorsuch as a genial, principled judge whose qualifications make him eminently suitable for the nation's highest court, and they derided the Democrats’ strategy.
“The nominee before us today is not President Trump,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “The nominee before us today is not Leader McConnell,” the Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell, who engineered a 10-month blockade of Obama's court pick, Judge Merrick Garland, last year.
Justice Antonin Scalia died last February and Republicans insisted that the next president would fill the court vacancy.
Democrats remain incensed over Garland's treatment, and are facing pressures from liberal voters and interest groups to oppose Gorsuch, but he seems all but certain to be confirmed. Either Democrats will provide the eight votes he needs to meet a 60-vote threshold, or McConnell and Republicans will unilaterally change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple 51-vote majority.
Seeming to acknowledge that the outcome was not in question, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., remarked to Gorsuch: “You're going to have your hands full with this president. He's going to keep you busy.”
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