WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Senate Democrats facing tough re-elections next year in Republican states said Thursday they would vote for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee as another colleague warned of the political risks in voting to block Judge Neil Gorsuch.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp announced in separate statements that they would join the 52 Senate Republicans in supporting the Denver-based appellate judge. A Senate vote on confirmation is expected later next week.
“I hold no illusions that I will agree with every decision Judge Gorsuch may issue in the future, but I have not found any reasons why this jurist should not be a Supreme Court Justice,” said Manchin.
Heitkamp said she expects Gorsuch to follow through on his promise of an independent judiciary that “acts as a proper check and balance on the other two branches of government.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said last week that Democrats would filibuster the nomination. With a 52-seat majority, Republicans need eight Democrats to vote with them to break the 60-vote threshold to move forward.
It’s unclear if they will have those votes — of the 10 Senate Democrats who are up for re-election in states Trump won, five have already said they will vote against him. McConnell has made it clear he will change the rules if he doesn’t get the votes, meaning they could proceed to a final confirmation vote with only a simple majority.
In all, 34 Democrats have said they will oppose Gorsuch. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto announced their opposition Thursday, expressing concern about his record.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who says she is torn over how to vote, highlighted the dilemma for Democratic senators running next year in states that Trump won.
Should they vote for Judge Neil Gorsuch and anger their liberal base? Or vote to block Gorsuch and prompt Republicans to permanently change Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster? The rule change would allow Gorsuch to be confirmed quickly and also make it easier for the majority party to confirm justices in the future.
“It is obviously a really difficult situation, that both alternatives, I think, have a lot of danger,” McCaskill told reporters on Thursday.
McCaskill’s comments came after The Kansas City Star released an audio recording of her talking to Democratic donors over the weekend. In the recording, which the Missouri Republican Party gave to the newspaper, McCaskill says the decision is difficult because if the filibuster is eliminated, Trump could nominate another justice without having to compromise with Democrats, and “all of a sudden, the things I fought for with scars on my back to show for it in this state are in jeopardy.”
After the recording was released, McCaskill confirmed the recording to reporters in the Capitol, saying her words speak for themselves.
“I said honestly I hadn’t decided, which you guys all know, and I said honestly I was torn, which I think everybody knows.”
If confirmed, Gorsuch would replace another conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. But if one of the more liberal justices dies or retires, Trump’s next pick could fundamentally alter the balance of the court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 84 and Justice Stephen Breyer is 78. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the pivotal vote closest to the court’s center, is 80.
In the recording obtained by the paper, McCaskill says she’s comfortable voting against Gorsuch, “but I’m very uncomfortable being part of a strategy that’s going to open up the Supreme Court to a complete change.”
Changing Senate rules would not be unprecedented. In 2013, Democrats were in the majority under the leadership of Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and upset about the blockage of President Barack Obama’s nominees to a powerful appellate court. The Democrats pushed through a rules change lowering the vote threshold on all nominees except for the Supreme Court from 60 to a simple majority.