BY NIELS LESNIEWSKI AND BRIDGET BOWMAN
Sen. Joe Manchin III on Wednesday became the first Democrat to meet with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, as Republicans began the long quest for Democratic votes for the conservative judge from Colorado.
When asked if Gorsuch should need 60 senators to support his confirmation, as he would if Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and other Democrats follow through on a filibuster threat, Manchin said nominees should always need bipartisan backing, including for the president’s Cabinet and lower courts.
“Let me just say that I thought Harry Reid was absolutely wrong in what he did, pulling the nuclear option,” said Manchin, referring to the former Democratic leader who spearheaded a successful effort in 2013 to remove Senate procedural blockades for nominees short of the Supreme Court.
Manchin was one of only three Democrats (and the only one still serving) to oppose that maneuver.
“If there’s not a place that we can build bipartisanship then we’re in trouble in this country. Harry pulled the trigger on that,” added the senior senator from West Virginia, which voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump last year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been adamant that Gorsuch will be confirmed, even if he comes up short of 60 votes. That scenario could require a change of Senate precedent on Supreme Court nominations to just a simple majority vote — an expansion of Reid’s nuclear option.
“If we end up with that gridlock, I would say, ‘If you can, Mitch, go nuclear,’” Trump said at the White House on Wednesday. “Because that would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was put up to that neglect. I would say it’s up to Mitch, but I would say, ‘Go for it.’”
With Gorsuch at his side, Manchin invoked his predecessor, Robert C. Byrd, saying the late Democratic senator “would have rolled over in his grave if he knew how we were acting today.”
Perhaps in a sign of his relationship with the Trump administration, Manchin was the first Democrat to meet with Gorsuch, ahead of either Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer or Judiciary ranking member Dianne Feinstein.
More broadly, Democrats on the ballot in 2018, many of whom hail from states won by Trump, will face competing pressures.
“It would be a significant problem for states that Donald Trump won,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Gardner pointed out that Trump won by a significant margin in some of the states that host 2018’s most competitive Senate races.
“So it will be a challenge for them,” Gardner said. “And that’s why I think Judge Gorsuch will be confirmed.”
Conservative outside groups such as America Rising Squared have flipped the script from 2016. Having successfully argued then against the Senate taking up President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, they are now pushing Democratic senators to give Gorsuch swift approval.
Like Manchin, a handful of Democrats in states Trump won indicated Wednesday that his victory should not be a determining factor when they decide whether or not to support Gorsuch.
“I don’t think you can make a determination about a Supreme Court justice based upon one election or a series of elections,” said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “It’s got to be a decision that’s made on their record.”
“I’m going to do what I think is right in my state,” said North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. “I don’t think my state gave their Senate vote to President Trump.”
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said Buckeye State voters backed Trump on trade, not necessarily on the Supreme Court.
“If you’ve been around here for more than a few weeks, you know I do what I think is best for my state,” Brown said. “That means disagreeing with Barack Obama on trade and fighting Donald Trump on the Supreme Court.”
And Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, where Trump was the first GOP presidential candidate to win the state in more than three decades, said she would stay true to the issues that led to her election four years ago.
“The voters in 2012 elected me to stand up to powerful interests and fight for Wisconsin’s working class and my work hasn’t changed,” Baldwin said, when asked if Trump’s victory in her state would factor in her consideration of Gorsuch’s nomination.
Anti-abortion advocates are already rallying their supporters against Gorsuch, who previously ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, after they sued to be exempted from the contraception coverage provisions of the 2010 health care law.
“If we deliver a unified message, we cannot be ignored. We must live out our values through daily acts of resistance, pick up the phone, and speak our minds,” NARAL President Ilyse Hogue wrote on Medium. “Call your senator and let them know that the majority of Americans did not vote for President Trump, and certainly not to use the Supreme Court to rewrite the Constitution.”
But Sen. Jon Tester of Montana dismissed the idea that pressure from progressive groups would influence his decision-making, saying that neither Trump’s Montana win nor outside pressure would pull him one way or the other.
“I don’t pay a lot of attention. I was sent here by the people of Montana to do a job and I’m going to continue that job,” Tester said. “Part of my job is to do the due diligence on all these nominees, and the Supreme Court is no exception.”
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.