By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee will face tough scrutiny at a Senate confirmation hearing starting on Monday, with Democrats seeking to make the case that Neil Gorsuch is a pro-business, social conservative insufficiently independent of the Republican president.
Gorsuch, a cool-headed and amiable conservative federal appeals court judge from Colorado, likely will try to engage members of the Senate Judiciary Committee without being pinned down on specifics that could trip up his nomination to the lifetime post.
The court’s ideological balance is at stake. If Gorsuch, nominated by Trump on Jan. 31, is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative majority on the court. The seat has been vacant for 13 months, since the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, a plain-spoken Iowan, will chair the proceedings, which could go as long as four days, providing classic Washington political theater.
Democrats can be expected to put up a fierce fight. They contend that Trump’s party “stole” a seat on the Supreme Court when the Republican-led Senate last year refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama’s nomination of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to replace Scalia.
Had Garland been confirmed, the court would have leaned to the left for the first time in decades. Since Scalia’s death, the court has been split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals.
In a bid to place hurdles in the way of Gorsuch’s confirmation, committee Democrats promise to question him on several fronts, focused on his record as an appellate judge and a Justice Department appointee under former President George W. Bush.
“Every nominee is important. If I conclude this one is outside the mainstream, I will use every tool at my disposal” to block his confirmation, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the committee, said on CNN ahead of the hearing.
Conservative activists planned a “Confirm Gorsuch” rally at the Senate office building where the hearing was being held.
“It’s very, very important we get Neil Gorsuch confirmed,” said Gregg Cummings, a member of the conservative Tea Party Patriots group who came from Lamoni, Iowa. “We need individuals that will 100 percent stay with the rule of law and the Constitution, and he is one of those.”
Among questions Gorsuch likely will face will be whether he is sufficiently independent from Trump, who has criticized judges for ruling against his bid to block people from a group of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Another line of attack previewed by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is to focus on rulings Gorsuch has authored in which corporate interests won out over individual workers.
Democrats will also press Gorsuch on his role as a Justice Department lawyer under Bush from 2005 to 2006, when he helped defend contentious policies enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, including the administration’s expansive use of interrogation techniques that critics called torture.
Gorsuch’s views on social issues, including a 2006 book he wrote in which he argued against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, likely will be discussed, too.
Judiciary Committee members were scheduled to give opening statements on Monday and then take turns questioning the nominee on Tuesday.
Democrats face an uphill battle to block Gorsuch. Republicans hold 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Under present rules, Gorsuch would need 60 votes in order to secure confirmation. If Democrats stay unified and Gorsuch cannot muster 60, Republicans could change the rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Will Dunham)