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Supreme Court showdown about to get real

PORTLAND, Maine — As Angus King goes, so may go Neil Gorsuch’s hopes of clinching a seat on the Supreme Court.

For Gorsuch to get confirmed to the nation’s highest court without a nasty filibuster fight, Donald Trump’s nominee needs to win over the likes of King, the first-term Maine senator who’s one of about a dozen Democratic votes who will determine Gorsuch’s fate.

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After nearly four hours fielding questions and comments at a Gorsuch-themed town hall here Sunday night, King still wasn’t tipping his hand. Yet he began to drop hints about how he could eventually get to “yes” on Gorsuch — one of President Donald Trump’s first and most enduring choices of his young presidency, and one of the few Trump decisions against which Democrats have struggled to fight back.

“Whatever else you can say about him, my sense from his record is, he’s exceedingly independent,” King, who identifies as independent but caucuses with Democrats, said near the end of his marathon “listening session” on the Supreme Court. Hundreds packed into a university auditorium and spilled into an overflow room for the event.

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“Many of his decisions are contrary to the Justice Department, the immigration services, various agencies,” King added of Gorsuch. “He’s a real stickler for limits on executive power.”

The senator went on, explaining why he felt that trait from Gorsuch was particularly important — especially for this overwhelmingly anti-Trump crowd at the University of Southern Maine.

“To be honest with you, it’s one of the things that’s weighing in my mind,” King said. “Because as many of you have pointed out, with this president, it’s going to be important to have an independent judiciary that will say: ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

Though Democrats hailing from red states have been the ripest targets for the pro-Gorsuch forces, King and other perennially swing votes will be as equally influential as Republicans hunt for at least eight Democratic votes that will help install Gorsuch to the nation’s most powerful court. The ninth seat has been left vacant for more than a year following the death of Antonin Scalia last February.

Simply put: How King ultimately lands on Gorsuch is shaping up to become one of the biggest and most consequential tests of his political independence.

King indicated he won’t make up his mind about Gorsuch for some time. Confirmation hearings are set to begin March 20, and Republicans hope to have a final floor vote by early- to mid-April.

But King offered some encouraging signs for Trump and Gorsuch’s prospects for getting confirmed: Aside from pointing out the judge’s independent streak, King also noted that Gorsuch is “very deferential to precedent” and didn’t seem to take issue with Gorsuch’s position toward the so-called “Chevron deference.” That is the view that judges should defer to federal agencies’ interpretations of certain laws. Gorsuch has signaled he disagrees with that view.

Many Democrats have railed against Gorsuch’s position on the matter, but King noted that, for instance, Scott Pruitt now leads the Environmental Protection Agency, and “maybe it’s not so great to have Scott Pruitt decide what the Clean Air Act means.”

Still, the mustachioed Maine senator left himself plenty of wiggle room. After the town hall, he told reporters he “very definitely” had concerns about the judge’s decision to side with Hobby Lobby when it challenged Obamacare’s contraceptives coverage requirement on religious grounds. That ruling that has become one of the biggest sticking points for Democratic senators.

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“I’m really not leaning,” King said. “I think, you know, there are concerns. But there are also strengths.”

Swing votes such as King are coming under substantial pressure from constituents, advocacy groups from the right and left, and perhaps their own Senate leadership.

That much was clear on Sunday during King’s event, which was mostly polite but had its share of rowdy moments. Of the dozens who aired their views on Gorsuch, nearly 60 of them urged King to oppose the the Supreme Court nominee. Fewer than 20 said they wanted King to help confirm Gorsuch.

Representatives from the local branches of liberal groups Planned Parenthood and Sierra Club, as well as the conservative Concerned Women for America, were out in full force. The crowd waved handmade signs that read “Gorsuch equals wealth over worker” and “No No Gorsuch, Arrest Sessions,” a reference to the attorney general who last week recused himself from any investigation involving the 2016 campaign.

One constituent told King he was “discouraged” that the senator was even seriously mulling Gorsuch’s nomination. Others used the Supreme Court discussion as a chance to vent their frustrations with Trump. “Why should Trump’s nominee even be considered until after a full, independent investigation?” asked one woman.

“I think every appointment that Trump has made has carried us further and deeper along toward this path, toward fascism,” added Martin Steingesser of Portland, Maine.

Several voters insisted that King keep in mind the GOP’s obstruction of Merrick Garland last year. But the senator replied that he wasn’t interested in matching the GOP’s stall tactics, which he said he found “just wrong, unconstitutional, a dereliction of their job.”

“We are where we are,” King said. “And the reality is, we have to deal with the situation as it plays out now.” While he acknowledged many of his constituents’ antipathy toward Trump, King said he didn’t “think [Gorsuch] should be strictly judged on the idea that it’s Mr. Trump’s nominee.”

Though fans of Gorsuch appeared far outnumbered at King’s forum, one ally of the Tenth Circuit judge caught King’s attention.

Leah Bressack, who clerked for Gorsuch from 2009 to 2011, told the audience of the judge’s “truly independent” approach to deciding cases and stressed that he worked in tandem with other judges with different viewpoints. Later, King called Bressack’s comments “very important.”

A handful of Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018, particularly five from deep-red states, have come under heavy political pressure to confirm Gorsuch. But King is also on the ballot next fall, and has his own political calculus to consider as he weighs his Gorsuch decision.

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Paul LePage, the state’s term-limited Republican governor with a proclivity for making offensive comments, has repeatedly said he may run against King next year.

“We elected President Trump. We’ve elected Governor LePage twice, and these people support Neil Gorsuch and strict constitutionalists in judgeships,” said Penny Morrell, the Maine state director for the conservative advocacy group Concerned Women for America. She urged King to vote for Gorsuch during the forum.

Former state Democratic Rep. Diane Russell, who also attended King’s town hall to advocate against Gorsuch, has said she is weighing a challenge against him. On Sunday, however, she downplayed a possible bid, saying the “likelihood of that is pretty slim.”

During his first term in the Senate, King, 72, has carved out a reputation as a studious and deliberative legislator, even attending hearings held by committees he doesn’t sit on because he wants to hear testimony firsthand. He said Sunday he would do the same for Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, quipping that he would sneak questions to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, to ask on his behalf.

King, the former Maine governor who practiced law before his career in politics, said he has plowed through about two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 opinions in which Gorsuch has been involved. The ream of paperwork is so thick that the senator carries it around in two binders.

So far this year, King has deviated little from the rest of the Democratic caucus on Trump’s Cabinet nominees, though he did vote to confirm Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

King said he hasn’t yet decided whether he will vote the same way on a cloture vote for Gorsuch as he will on the actual confirmation. In other words, King could help advance Gorsuch to a final vote before opposing him.

King is wrestling with that and other considerations as the Supreme Court decision — his first as a senator — comes to a head.

“It’s very consequential,” King said. “I don’t know how to compare. But it’s certainly one of the most important (decisions) any senator makes.”

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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