Two Senate Dems vow to cross aisle in support of Trump high-court nominee

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin say they are prepared to break party lines to avoid the 'nuclear option.'

Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
Demonstrators hold pennants as Senate Republicans speak at a rally for nominee Neil Gorsuch outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., March 29, 2017.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin have announced their intentions to back Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, but one thing sets them apart from the dozens of other senators who’ve pledged to do the same: their party.

Their statements, published Thursday, make them the first of the 100-seat Senate’s 48 Democrats to express a willingness to cast a ballot with their Republican colleagues. Many consider Mr. Gorsuch qualified, but the memory of Republicans’ refusal to consider Merrick Garland’s nomination still smarts, pushing Democrats to say they intend to resort to a procedural tactic that Republicans threaten will force them to re-write the legislative playbook.

Both senators, who come from red states, insist that their votes don’t signify support for Gorsuch’s conservative positions.

“There isn’t a perfect judge. Regardless of which party is in the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court should be above politics,” wrote Senator Heitkamp in a statement.

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,” echoed Sen. Manchin.

Rather, they focused on Gorsuch’s qualifications for the position. Heitkamp praised his objectivity and familiarity with tribal law:

“He has a record as a balanced, meticulous, and well-respected jurist who understands the rule of law. He has unique and critical experience with tribal sovereignty, Indian law, and public lands issues in the west, and has received the endorsement of numerous tribes and major Native American organizations.”

Manchin also suggested Gorsuch would be a balanced and non-partisan Supreme Court justice: “Throughout Judge Gorsuch’s career, he has come to his legal rulings objectively, through the letter of the law rather than through his own opinion.”

“During his time on the bench, Judge Gorsuch has received praise from his colleagues who have been appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. He has been consistently rated as a well-qualified jurist, the highest rating a jurist can receive, and I have found him to be an honest and thoughtful man,” said Manchin.

Many refuse to support Gorsuch on principal, after Republicans declined to vote on former President Barack Obama’s pick of Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, leaving the ninth seat open for an unprecedented nearly 300 days.

Heitkamp strongly rebukes the move but said she fears the consequences of deepening partisanship. “This vote does not diminish how disturbed I am by what Republicans did to Judge Garland,” she wrote. “But I was taught that two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Senate Democrats plan to employ the filibuster tactic to block the vote, which would require 60 votes to break. The 52 senate Republicans, now joined by Heitkamp and Manchin, need six more defections to avoid a showdown.

Should that showdown come, Republicans say they’re willing to trigger the so-called “nuclear option” and vote to eliminate the filibuster entirely, which they can do with a simple majority of 50 votes. The Democrats pulled a similar move in 2013, eliminating the filibuster for most other presidential nominations.

So far, 35 Democrats have announced their opposition to Gorsuch’s confirmation, leaving eleven undecided. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network has reportedly paid for ads in states including Colorado, Indiana, and Montana to pressure senators who remain undecided, according to Politico. 

Some political analysts speculate that Heitkamp and Manchin's break from party lines may make it easier for others to follow suit. 

This report contains materials from Reuters and the AP.

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