News analysis

Senate set for fierce fight over Trump's Supreme Court pick

Republicans seeking to add conservative voice in court face Democrats' strong resistance

WASHINGTON • The United States Senate headed for its most heated Supreme Court confirmation hearings in more than a decade, with both parties facing intense pressure to prevail in one of the defining political battles of President Donald Trump's nascent term.

Mr Neil Gorsuch, Mr Trump's pick to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the court, was poised to visit Capitol Hill yesterday. The Republicans are hoping to confirm the nomination by early April.

In tapping Mr Gorsuch for an open seat, Mr Trump chose a candidate with the potential to reassure Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote who holds the balance of power on the court, that it would be safe to retire.

The idea is to show Mr Kennedy, 80, that should he step down at some point, Mr Trump would select as his replacement a nominee similar to Mr Gorsuch, and not one so inflammatory or outside the mainstream as to be unacceptable to Mr Kennedy. Although certainly more conservative than Mr Kennedy, Mr Gorsuch once clerked for him and has earned his enduring respect.

Whether that White House strategy would work remains unclear. Several former clerks to Mr Kennedy said on Tuesday that they doubted it would be the decisive factor for him. But it is clear that Mr Kennedy's status over the next four years holds enormous consequences for the future of the court. While he has shown signs of thinking about retirement, he also cares deeply about the legacy he will leave behind.

And in a sign that the Democrats were immediately ramping up resistance, Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, from Mr Trump's home state of New York, and several colleagues declared that Mr Gorsuch would need to earn at least 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles to earn a final confirmation vote. The Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate.

President Trump with Mr Gorsuch and his wife, Mrs Louise Gorsuch, at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Mr Gorsuch is Mr Trump's nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Regarded as a conservative, he currently serves a
President Trump with Mr Gorsuch and his wife, Mrs Louise Gorsuch, at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. Mr Gorsuch is Mr Trump's nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. Regarded as a conservative, he currently serves as a judge on the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"The burden is on Judge Neil Gorsuch to prove himself to be within the legal mainstream and, in this new era, willing to vigorously defend the Constitution from abuses of the Executive branch and protect the constitutionally enshrined rights of all Americans," Mr Schumer said. "Given his record, I have very serious doubts about Judge Gorsuch's ability to meet this standard."

That will put pressure on the Republicans, who have been agonising over whether to change longstanding Senate rules to break Democratic resistance - and who are already feeling the heat from supporters yearning to add a conservative voice to the court for the first time since the George W. Bush administration.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes senators will give Mr Gorsuch "fair consideration and respect the result of the recent election with an up-or-down vote on his nomination, just like the Senate treated the four first-term nominees of Presidents (Bill) Clinton and (Barack) Obama".

In a separate video message, Mr McConnell gushed about Mr Gorsuch: "The President made an outstanding choice."

Mr Gorsuch's fate rests especially with Democrats including Senator Jeff Merkley, who suggested in recent days that he would try to mount a filibuster as payback to Republicans who blocked former president Obama's final Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for almost the whole of last year. "This is a stolen seat," Senator Merkley said in a statement on Tuesday night.

Other Democrats said their consideration of Mr Gorsuch will now be tied to Mr Trump's executive order temporarily barring US entry for foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries and for refugees worldwide - and his decision to fire acting attorney-general Sally Yates for refusing to defend the order in court.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a senior member of the Senate judiciary committee that will consider Mr Gorsuch's nomination, said: "In the light of the unconstitutional actions of our new President in just his first week, the Senate owes the American people a thorough and unsparing examination of this nomination."

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'Senate set for fierce fight over Trump's Supreme Court pick'. Print Edition | Subscribe