President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., left, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a meeting with Senators on his Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (AP)

Trump's SCOTUS lifeline: Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp break ranks to say they'll support Neil Gorsuch

The two senators joining the GOP — both of whom face re-election next year — will likely get little party support

Sophia Tesfaye
March 31, 2017 8:42PM (UTC)

Days before a critical showdown over Neil Gorsuch's confirmation, two Democratic senators announced that they plan to vote for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. The announcement from Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota comes just as the president wraps up one of the most politically disastrous weeks of his first 100 days in office.

The final vote on Gorsuch’s nomination is slated for one week from Friday. Manchin’s and Heitkamp’s declaration of support for Trump’s nominee late Thursday may be the only political win an embattled White House can point to at the end of this week. As if last Friday’s failure to cajole enough Republicans in Congress to support his plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act was not politically damaging enough, Trump faced news of a former top advisor seeking immunity in exchange for testimony as he entered the final day of this week. The news that two red state Democrats will support his ultra-conservative nominee — over Democratic objections that the seat for former Justice Antonin Scalia’s successor was stolen by Republicans from Barack Obama — is surely welcome news for a battered Trump.


Republicans now need six more Democrats or independents to support advancing Trump’s nominee to a final up-or-down vote to get over the 60-vote bar and avoid a showdown over Senate rules. If at least 41 Democrats try to block a final vote on Gorsuch’s nomination, Republicans could still change the Senate rules to allow a simple majority to defeat any filibuster — the so-called nuclear option — with only 50 votes needed of their 52-vote majority.

So far, 31 senators have come out against Gorsuch and pledged to support a filibuster against Trump’s nominee, including some from states that Trump won and are up for reelection next year.  

“Gorsuch will be confirmed,” McConnell said this week, all but guaranteeing Republicans would change the rules to seat Gorsuch on the highest court in the nation if enough Democrats oppose Trump’s nominee.


This week’s two Democratic announcements boosting Trump’s nominee came as no surprise. Explaining their support for Trump’s pick, both Democrats pointed to process and respect for Senate decorum.

“I was taught that two wrongs don’t make a right,” Heitkamp told reporters this week. “Regardless of which party is in the White House, the U.S. Supreme Court should be above politics.”

Manchin, who has worked closely with Trump, said of Trump’s selection, “I have not found any reasons why this jurist should not be a Supreme Court justice."


According to Politico, progressive groups are already planning to lobby the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to withhold campaign funding for the two Democrats, both up for reelection in 2018, and any other Democratic senator that supports Gorsuch.

During the 2012 election, the party gave Heitkamp less than $44,000 in campaign funding. Manchin received nothing, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


As politically useful as the timing of Manchin’s and Heitkamp’s big voice of support for the beleaguered Trump administration may have been this week, the two Democratic senators notably held their announcement until dozens of Democratic senators announced their opposition — presumably to aid Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer whip enough opposition votes.  

“The answer is not to change the rules. It’s to change the nominee,” Schumer has repeatedly argued of Trump’s controversial pick.

On Friday, Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkely went further to knock down his colleagues’ arguments in favor of Gorsuch’s nomination. Merkely argued that there is simply no need to uphold an illusion of norms when Republicans have already broken precedence to block Obama’s nomination and will likely invoke the nuclear option on the next nominee from Trump or any other Republican president.


“Picture this: You have two people confront each other,” the Oregon Democrat said on MSNBC. “One of them pulls out a sword and says, ‘I’ve got the power, the other pulls out a machine gun and says too bad, and then the person with the sword says, ‘Well, I will just lay it down and I won’t pick it up until next time I come back, and the next time you come back, the other team still has a machine gun.” 

Watch below, via MSNBC:


Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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