Dems, GOP brace for Senate battle over Trump’s court pick

Updated July 9, 2018 - 8:19 pm

WASHINGTON — Senate reaction to the Supreme Court nomination of federal appellate Judge Brett Kavanaugh was mostly split along party lines Monday, as Republicans and Democrats prepared for an all-out confirmation battle.

Republicans must prevent defection of moderates that Democrats hope to pick off in a long-shot effort to defeat or delay the confirmation of a justice who could shift the ideological balance of nation’s highest court. Democrats also must keep three senators from states won by Trump in 2016 from voting with Republicans.

President Donald Trump vowed during his presidential campaign to appoint anti-abortion justices to the high court. He chose Kavanaugh from a list of candidates vetted by conservative groups including the Federalist Society to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Democrats lack the votes to derail or delay the nomination, but Republicans can’t afford defections to confirm the presidential pick in the Senate where they have a razor-thin 51-49 majority.

Nevada Sens. Dean Heller, a Republican, and Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, pledged to review the qualifications of the candidate, but both are largely expected to side with their respective party leaders on the vote for confirmation.

The looming battle, however, centers on a half-dozen senators who could break party ranks.

Two Republican moderates, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and several red state Democrats up for re-election, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, could provide the crucial votes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., needs to keep the two GOP moderates in the fold, while Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., must pick them off to be successful in blocking the nomination, according to political strategists in both parties.

Advocacy groups have already announced expensive advertising campaigns targeting the lawmakers who could decide the confirmation battle.

“They will be under tremendous pressure from their leaders not to announce how they are going to vote until the very end of the process,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who worked for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Manley said Democrats can’t defeat the nominee unless they pick off a couple of Republicans, and even then, defeat won’t happen “unless the Democrats stay together.”

Outside a vote to defeat the nomination, Manley said “there are not a lot of options for Senate Democrats to delay the vote.”

Kennedy was seen as a swing vote on the Supreme Court, voting with conservatives on the ruling that settled the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush, but also voting with liberal justices on issues of abortion rights and gay marriage.

Cortez Masto said she would “thoroughly review” the qualifications of Trump’s nominee for the court, but she also noted that “nothing less than a woman’s right to choose is on the line with this vacant Supreme Court seat.”

“We need a justice who respects the rights and freedoms enshrined in our Constitution, not someone who is beholden to special interest groups,” Cortez Masto said.

Liberal groups are pressing Schumer to keep Democrats united in opposition. Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly, all up for re-election in states that Trump won in 2016, voted last year to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, who replaced the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the court.

Democrats need to retain those Senate seats to bolster their uphill fight to win control of the Senate.

Heller is also up for re-election in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. But the Nevada lawmaker has embraced the president’s agenda and has urged Senate leaders to “move swiftly so that we can put another principled, conservative justice on our nation’s highest court next to Neil Gorsuch.”

“Judge Kavanaugh has a record of adherence to the Constitution and has demonstrated a commitment to interpreting the law – not making it,” said Heller, who attended the White House announcement.

Heller is being challenged by Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev. She said Heller would “rubber stamp” another Trump nominee to the Supreme Court that could jeopardize the landmark 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide.

Collins and Murkowski support abortion rights, but both voted to confirm Gorsuch last year.

Gorsuch was confirmed on a 54-45 vote. Since then, the Senate GOP has lost a seat in Alabama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is battling cancer, has not voted since last year.

McConnell can lose no more than one GOP vote without getting support from red state Democrats.

Collins left open the possibility that she would vote against a nominee that doesn’t respect precedent of previous rulings.

Kavanaugh will begin one-on-one meetings with senators ahead of hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the most partisan panels in Congress.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate, predicted confirmation before Trump announced the nominee and despite Democratic opposition.

“In the end, we’ll vote to confirm the president’s nominee this fall,” Cornyn said.

Contact Gary Martin at gmartin@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7390. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.

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