Dems in bind over Trump court pick

Senate Republicans voiced confidence Wednesday that they will have the votes to confirm President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, as Democrats appeared divided over how to handle the pick.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerSchumer: Dems didn't 'tell people what we stood for' in 2016 Schumer: Dems, not Russia, are to blame for loss to Trump Repair is the only “R” word that can solve our healthcare woes MORE (N.Y.) in a floor speech indicated that he has serious concerns about Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

But Schumer stopped short of promising a filibuster against Gorsuch, saying instead that Trump’s nominee should meet a 60-vote threshold to get on the court.

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“We Democrats will insist on a rigorous but fair process. There will be 60 votes for confirmation,” he said from the Senate floor. “There will be 60 votes for confirmation.”

Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyOPINION | Shailene Woodley: US should run on renewable energy by 2050 Gore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere Callista Gingrich touts Trump's commitment to environment despite Paris deal pullout MORE (Ore.), who began the week promising a filibuster against any nominee from Trump, was on Wednesday the only Democratic senator explicitly voicing support for using procedural tools to stop Gorsuch, a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with a sterling academic and legal resume.

A handful of other Democrats, including Sens. Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownGOP Senate candidate attacks Anti-Defamation League for ‘witchhunt' on far right Senate Banking leaders introduce flood insurance bill Major progressive group endorses Martha McSally challenger MORE (Ohio), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSanders keeping door open on 2020 Scaramucci deletes old tweets bashing Trump Trump's new communications chief once called him a 'hack' MORE (Mass.), Ron WydenRon WydenTrump and GOP wise to keep tax reform and infrastructure separate Dem senator questions Justice Department on warrantless surveillance FCC says it cannot provide more proof of claimed cyberattack MORE (Ore.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTrump's DOJ gears up for crackdown on marijuana OPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? Dems see huge field emerging to take on Trump MORE (N.Y.), say they will oppose him. But no other Democrats have so far used Merkley’s language.

It’s possible that will change, but Democratic senators on Wednesday appeared to be in no hurry to make promises.  

Other Democrats say they are keeping an open mind on Gorsuch, even liberals such as Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinTop Dem: Trump’s voter fraud commission will accomplish what Putin wants Senators who have felt McCain's wrath talk of their respect for him Graham and Kushner met to discuss immigration differences: report MORE (Ill.), who said he would support a hearing and vote on his nomination.

Ten Democrats representing states won by Trump last year are up for reelection in 2018 and will come under certain attack from Republicans for blocking Gorsuch on procedural grounds. Trump carried five of those states by double digits.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinManchin bashes GOP candidate for pushing McCain to resign McCain’s primary challenger asks him to step aside after diagnosis Governors-turned-senators meet to talk healthcare MORE (W.Va.), one of the red-state Democrats up for reelection, told reporters before meeting with Gorsuch that he is looking for a jurist “that follows the law,” following up on his pledge from the day before not to filibuster “for the sake of filibustering.”

Many Democrats are still sore over the way Republicans treated Merrick Garland, whom former President Obama nominated to fill Scalia’s seat in early 2016. Republicans never gave Garland a hearing or a vote.

At the same time, the party seems skeptical of pulling out every tool to block Gorsuch, despite the urging of many outside liberal groups.

Republicans across the board have praised Gorsuch’s record, and his home-state senator, Cory GardnerCory GardnerProtesters interrupt Senate Republican’s speech over healthcare Interior recommends preserving Colorado site's monument status Overnight Energy: Exxon sues feds over M fine | Deputy Interior pick advances | Oil concerns hold up Russia sanctions push MORE (R-Colo.), predicted Wednesday that the entire GOP conference would back him.

“I think he’s going to have a tremendous amount of support from Democrats as well,” he said after meeting with the nominee.

Gardner was quick to point out the political stakes for red-state Democrats.

“If your state voted for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpScarborough, Brzezinski named rabbit after Trump Trump Jr. adds to legal team ahead of Senate meeting Conway: Trump doesn't think he's lying on voter fraud, wiretap claims MORE and you’re obstructing Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, there’s going to be a penalty to be paid,” said Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which will be targeting vulnerable Democrats next year.

Vice President Pence accompanied Gorsuch to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSenate healthcare bill appears headed for failure Talk of Trump pardons reverberates on Sunday shows Trump backers eye GOP primary challenges for Flake, Heller MORE’s (R-Ky.) office for his first meeting of the day. Gorsuch also sat down with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyTrump Jr. adds to legal team ahead of Senate meeting Pentagon to address M spent on untested Afghan camouflage: report Franken: Trump Jr., Manafort need to testify under oath MORE (R-Iowa) and Senate Republican Whip John CornynJohn CornynTrump launches all-out assault on Mueller probe Senators who have felt McCain's wrath talk of their respect for him Senate heads to new healthcare vote with no clear plan MORE (Texas).

Grassley says he plans on holding confirmation hearings in six weeks, a timeline that Democrats are not pushing back on yet.

A senior Democratic aide said Democrats would object to Grassley’s timeline if Gorsuch were slow in turning over documentation for review, as some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees have been.

  While partisanship in the Senate has become increasingly bitter in recent years, filibusters of Supreme Court nominees are rare. 

Senate leaders have moved only four times to end filibusters of Supreme Court nominations — in 1968, 1971, 1986 and 2006, according to a Congressional Research Service report from October 2015.

There’s debate on whether those few examples qualify as judicial filibusters. Former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) filed a cloture motion to end dilatory debate on the nomination of William Rehnquist to serve as an associate justice on the court in 1971. Even though the motion failed, Rehnquist still won confirmation on the same day.

A decade ago, a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of 14 came to an agreement that judicial nominees should only be filibustered in “extraordinary circumstances,” a description that does not seem to apply to Gorsuch. 

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillPentagon to address M spent on untested Afghan camouflage: report Federal Election Commission must not shy away from Russia probe Senate Dems warn potential Missouri GOP recruit with opposition research dump MORE (D-Mo.), who is running for reelection, blamed McConnell’s obstructionist tactics during the Obama administration for destroying the chamber’s tradition of comity.

“Things have changed around here. There was a new era of obstructionism ushered in by Mitch McConnell. He’s the one who has to account for changing the dynamics of the Senate, maybe for all time,” she said.

But vulnerable Democrats will have to walk a fine line on the nomination, knowing that if they vote to block Trump’s pick despite his impressive credentials, it will become a campaign issue next year.

“There’s a general dislike for the filibuster, and I think the president nominated someone who is easily defended,” said Sen. Jerry MoranJerry MoranSenate healthcare bill appears headed for failure The Memo: Trump tries to bend Congress to his will Tensions linger between Trump and GOP lawmakers MORE (R-Kan.), who served as NRSC chairman in 2014, when Republicans captured the Senate majority. “Those two things combined make it difficult to rationalize a filibuster.”

“I would guess this becomes a significant political issue in states,” he added.

Conservative groups led by the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) say they will spend “tens of millions” of dollars to support Gorsuch. The JCN has a $10 million budget to spend right out of the gate, and Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director, says it will spend more if necessary.

That’s why Democrats in pro-Trump states say they will give Gorsuch a fair review.

“I’m going to bring him in, interview him and make a decision on whether I’m going to support him or not based on what I read about him in that interview,” said Sen. Jon TesterJon TesterVulnerable senators raise big money ahead of 2018 'Kate's Law' battle shifts to the Senate, testing Dems Democrats go in for the kill on ObamaCare repeal MORE (D-Mont.), who is up for reelection in 2018.

But Tester, along with other vulnerable Democrats such as Manchin and McCaskill, said he’s not ruling out backing a filibuster later in the spring.

Jordain Carney contributed.