WASHINGTON (AP) — Bitter partisanship marked the start of Senate confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick today, as Democrats angrily condemned Republicans for refusing to act on Barack Obama’s nominee last year and Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics.
The nominee himself, Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, seemed almost an afterthought at times, sitting alone at the witness table, occasionally nodding or taking notes, as the 20 members of the Judiciary Committee took turns delivering lengthy and partisan opening statements.
Gorsuch will get his turn to speak at the end of the day Monday, when he will deliver his own opening statement, and questioning will begin on Tuesday. Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced the panel would vote on Gorsuch’s nomination April 3, with a vote on the Senate floor expected later that week.
It’s all unfolding fully 13 months after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death created a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
In his opening statement, Grassley alluded caustically to Democrats’ complaints about judicial independence in the Trump era. Gorsuch told several lawmakers privately that he was disheartened by Trump’s attacks on judges who ruled against him over his immigration ban, but that didn’t go far enough for Democrats.
“In recent months I’ve heard that ‘now more than ever’ we need a justice who is independent, and who respects the separation of powers,” Grassley said. “Some of my colleagues seem to have rediscovered an appreciation for the need to confine each branch of government to its proper sphere.”
Democrats, under intense pressure from liberal base voters horrified by the Trump presidency, entered the hearings divided over how hard to fight Gorsuch’s nomination given that the mild-mannered jurist is no right-wing bomb thrower and is widely expected to win confirmation in the end, one way or another.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., repeated a comment by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus last month that Gorsuch “represents the type of judge that has the vision of Donald Trump.”
“I want to hear from you why Mr. Priebus would say that,” Durbin said to Gorsuch. “Most Americans question whether we need a Supreme Court justice with the vision of Donald Trump.”
Several of the more liberal Senate Democrats have already announced plans to oppose Gorsuch and seek to block his nomination from coming to a final vote. But delay tactics by Democrats could lead Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to exercise procedural maneuvers of his own to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold now in place for Supreme Court nominations, and with it any Democratic leverage to influence the next Supreme Court fight.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The filibuster rule when invoked requires 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination, contrasted with the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.
Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative judge with a legal philosophy akin to Scalia’s.