President Donald Trump on Wednesday urged Senate Republicans to "go nuclear" and invoke a rule change to force a simple majority vote toward confirmation if Democrats block his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, as Democrats maneuvered for a tough fight.
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Gorsuch and Vice President Mike Pence met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a day after Trump nominated the federal appeals court judge from Colorado for a lifetime job on the nation's highest court.
Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate 52-48. Democrats signaled on Wednesday that they would set up a procedural hurdle, known as a filibuster, that would require 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to move toward confirmation of Gorsuch.
The president urged McConnell to change long-standing Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, a move some have dubbed the "nuclear option," if Democrats block Gorsuch.
"We want to have him go through an elegant process as opposed to a demeaning process, because they're very demeaning on the other side, and they want to make you look as bad as possible," Trump said of Gorsuch, referring to the Democrats.
"If we end up with that gridlock, I would say, 'If you can, Mitch, go nuclear," Trump said at a White House meeting with conservative activists, a business group and the National Rifle Association gun rights group, who all supported the nomination.
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Under the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court nominations require Senate confirmation.
If confirmed, Gorsuch would reinstate the Supreme Court's conservative majority, which had existed for decades before Justice Antonin Scalia's death last Feb. 13. That shift could prove to be pivotal on a range of issues, including presidential powers, the death penalty and transgender, abortion, regulation, gun control and religious rights.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor that if Gorsuch cannot meet the same standard that Republicans insisted upon for Democratic President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees - 60 votes in the Senate - "then the problem lies not with the Senate, but with the nominee."
"The answer should not be to change the rules of the Senate, but to change the nominee to someone who can earn 60 votes. Sixty votes produces a mainstream candidate," Schumer added.
The senator said that while Trump campaigned as someone who would "be for the working man and woman," he has chosen a Supreme Court nominee who "sides with CEOs over citizens."
In early January, Schumer raised the possibility of Democrats fighting to keep the seat vacant rather than let the Senate confirm Trump's nominee.
'WE'RE ALL THRILLED'
Gorsuch's meeting with McConnell at his office was his first of a round of customary meetings with senators by a Supreme Court nominee to build support for confirmation.
"We're all thrilled and looking forward to getting this confirmation process started," said McConnell, who last year refused to let the Republican-led Senate hold confirmation hearings or a vote on Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
Some Democratic senators, arguing that Republicans stole a Supreme Court seat from Obama, announced opposition to Gorsuch, while others said they were willing to hear him out.
"Unfortunately, Judge Gorsuch has proven to have a judicial philosophy outside of the mainstream and time and again has subjugated individual rights to those of corporations," said Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who came out in opposition to the nomination.
Gorsuch is known for backing religious rights and writing against euthanasia and assisted suicide. At 49, he is the youngest Supreme Court selection in more than a quarter century.
Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat, said a Supreme Court nominee should have to win the support of 60 senators but urged fellow Democrats to give Gorsuch a chance. Manchin, whose home state of West Virginia voted overwhelmingly for Trump last November is up for re-election in 2018.
Manchin also noted that Gorsuch was approved by the Senate with no opposition when Republican President George W. Bush nominated him to the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006.
"I think it should be 60 votes for our Supreme Court," Manchin said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program. "I think at the highest court of the land it should be where we're coming together as Americans, not continue to divide us. And with that being said, let's give the man a chance. Talk to him."
Gorsuch was scheduled to meet with Manchin later in the day.
Senate aides said Republicans were hoping the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings and votes on the nomination by late March, paving the way for approval by the full Senate in the first week of April. If that happens, Gorsuch could be on the high court for a major transgender rights case.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Lawrence Hurley; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)