The Supreme Court confirmation drama starring Judge Neil Gorsuch will now unfold in a mix of choreographed and improvised moves.
Some steps are highly stylized, like Gorsuch’s courtesy visits to senators. Others start out of sight, as researchers track his long paper trail. Some will be splashy, like ad campaigns targeting vulnerable lawmakers.
Then there are the new twists, which have already started with President Donald Trump’s unusual prime-time nomination announcement Tuesday, which was preceded by an all-day buildup of suspense.
On Wednesday, Trump escalated the drama and sense of unpredictability by urging Senate Republicans to “go nuclear” if necessary to break a potential Democratic filibuster.
So, with caveats, here’s what will happen next.
Meeting and greeting
Gorsuch, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, started a round of courtesy calls with a midmorning visit Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He followed up with the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley. There will be many more to come. Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by President Barack Obama last year, met with at least 50 senators last year as part of a futile bid that ultimately was blocked by Republicans’ refusal to hold a hearing.
Gorsuch himself placed a phone call to Garland.
The private meetings tend to last a half-hour or so, and are designed more for ice-breaking and political theater than for persuasion.
“I enjoyed very much our meeting a few weeks ago and appreciated the chance to talk with you then,” Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama told Democratic nominee Elena Kagan at her 2010 hearing.
Sessions voted against Kagan, as did most other Republicans..
The White House immediately launched a Twitter account, @Gorsuchfacts, and posted information about Gorsuch on Facebook. Pence went on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Wednesday afternoon to make the case, while Trump met with allies including Juanita D. Duggan of the National Federation of Independent Business and Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association.
Interest groups, too, will weigh in, big time. This is their opportunity to shine and to show their muscle.
From the right, a group called the Judicial Crisis Network says it will initiate a “broadcast/satellite/digital ad buy” that will start at more than $2 million, in the states of Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and Montana. Trump won the presidential vote in each state, in which Democratic senators will be up for re-election in 2018.
From the left, the website of People for the American Way asks visitors to “make an urgent donation,” while the group has declared plans for a television ad campaign.
Researchers will vacuum up every public word the 49-year-old Gorsuch has ever spoken or written. In 2009, for instance, conservatives leaned heavily on their discovery of Sonia Sotomayor’s assertion about the advantages of a “wise Latina” in a 2001 speech at the University of California, Berkeley.
Gorsuch himself will deliver loads of information, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will make public on its website. New readers are now riffling through the 320 pages of his 2006 book, “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” which Amazon listed on Wednesday as out of stock. More intrepid souls will check out at the Library of Congress some of the 858 boxes of papers from the late Justice Byron White, for whom Gorsuch clerked.
Nuggets can be found anywhere. The initial 1971 nomination of the late Justice William Rehnquist, for instance, hit a bump when researchers uncovered a 1952 memo he had written while clerking. In 1971, and again in his 1986 nomination to be chief justice, Rehnquist effectively disavowed the memo that had seemed to support a notorious 1896 court ruling on segregation.
Vote counting and vote posturing
Any Senate Democrat interested in running for president probably must satisfy the party’s base and oppose Gorsuch. Obama showed how this works when, as a senator in 2005, he opposed the indisputably well-qualified John Roberts Jr. as chief justice.
One ambitious Democrat, California Sen. Kamala Harris, said via Twitter that she was troubled by Gorsuch’s nomination, while another, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, quickly announced her outright opposition.
“I plan to stand up for individuals over corporations and oppose his nomination, and I will insist that his nomination meet a traditional 60-vote threshold,” Gillibrand said.
Unlike lower court nominations, current Senate rules still permit Supreme Court nominations to be filibustered, and thereby need 60 votes to proceed. Another Senate Democrat, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, has likewise announced he will filibuster.
The Senate’s 52 Republicans will almost certainly fall into line, meaning that eight senators who caucus with the Democrats would have to defect. So long as the filibuster option remains possible, this will rivet attention to the likes of West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin, who represents a state that Trump won by 41 points.
“Let’s give the man a chance,” Manchin said Wednesday on MSNBC.
Trump on Wednesday endorsed McConnell using the so-called “nuclear option” if necessary to get Gorsuch confirmed with 50 votes, rather than the 60 needed now to end debate.
“If we end up with that gridlock I would say, ‘If you can, Mitch, go nuclear,’ ” Trump said. “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.’ ”