WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat voiced frustration on Wednesday at U.S. Supreme Court selection Neil Gorsuch's elusive answers to questions on major legal issues, though his nomination appeared to be moving forward smoothly.
President Donald Trump's nominee for a lifetime job on the nation's highest court faced another round of questions on the third day of his Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing after enduring 11 hours of questioning on Tuesday. If confirmed by the full U.S. Senate, as expected, he would reinstate a conservative majority on the court.
Gorsuch is virtually assured of winning approval in the committee, moving his nomination to the full Senate. There Gorsuch's challenge will be to gather enough Democratic support to avoid a prolonged floor fight with the potential, if it gets rocky, of changing how the Senate works.
Democrats have been unable to pin Gorsuch down during the hearing on key matters. He has sidestepped answering whether he thought a series of contentious cases from the past had been decided correctly, including cases on abortion, gun rights, political spending, religious rights and the ruling tipping the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush.
"What worries me is you have been very much able to avoid any specificity, like no one I have every seen before," Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel's top democrat, told Gorsuch.
"Maybe that's a virtue. I don't know. But for us on this side, knowing where you stand on major questions of the day is really important to a vote. So that's why we press and press and press," she added.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham shot back that Democrats were maintaining a "double standard," saying they had no problem when Supreme Court nominees put forward by Democratic presidents were similarly elusive.
Senator Chuck Grassley, the panel's chairman, praised Gorsuch for "your poise and your thoughtfulness" during the long day of questioning on Tuesday.
Grassley acknowledged the reluctance among justices to permit cameras in Supreme Court, noting that former justice David Souter once said TV cameras would have to roll in "over my dead body."
"I want you to know that I believe that public access to our court system is an important issue, and having cameras in the courtroom is one way to improve public access," Grassley said.
Gorsuch agreed to have an open mind but did not offer his view on the matter. The Supreme Court releases audio recordings of oral arguments but forbids TV coverage.
Gorsuch is assured of support from the Republicans who hold 52 seats in the 100-member Senate. But the Senate has a 60-vote hurdle for confirmation of Supreme Court justices, meaning Gorsuch would need the backing of eight Democrats.
If the Democrats stand firmly together and oppose Gorsuch, Republicans could reach for what has become known as the "nuclear option" and change the Senate rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority vote. That is a step some senators are reluctant to take.
After Democrats during the first two days of the hearings tried to portray Gorsuch as a judge who favoured corporate interests over the average person, Grassley pushed back.
"There’s plenty of evidence that you rule as you see the law requires you to rule. Sometimes it comes out against the little guy and sometimes it comes out very much in favour of the little guy," Grassley said.
The panel will hold a closed-door session later on Wednesday before final testimony on Thursday from outside witnesses who oppose or support Gorsuch. A committee vote is expected on April 3.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday Gorsuch would be confirmed before the Senate's mid-April recess.
Such a move would set a precedent for future Supreme Court nominations. Democrats may hesitate to provoke Republicans into using the nuclear option because it would make it easier for future Trump nominees to be confirmed. Republicans may flinch at the move because it would make it easier for the Democrats, if they should regain Senate control, to win easy approval of their own future Supreme Court nominees.
If confirmed, Gorsuch would replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. As a lifetime appointee, Gorsuch, 49, would be expected to serve for decades.
In some ways, the fight over Gorsuch is a preview of the even bigger battle to come over the next vacancy. Three members of the current court are 78 or older. Ruth Bader Ginsburg just turned 84. Her fellow liberal Stephen Breyer is 78. The court’s frequent swing vote, conservative Anthony Kennedy, is 80.
If Breyer or Ginsburg were to be replaced by a conservative judge similar to Gorsuch, the court would have a firm 6-3 majority, possibly for decades.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)
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