WASHINGTON — A handful of moderate senators will likely determine the fate of President Trump’s next Supreme Court nominee, and they’re already in the hot seat as advocacy groups on the right and left prepare for a pitched confirmation battle.
Trump is poised to name his choice to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on Monday, though there are signals it could come sooner. No matter who Trump chooses, the confirmation vote will be close because Republicans hold a narrow 51-to-49 margin in the Senate.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has been absent while battling brain cancer, leaving the GOP majority almost no room for defections — unless a few Democrats break with their party and support Trump’s pick. Three Democrats voted with Senate Republicans last year to confirm Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wants to move quickly on the nomination and hold a Senate floor vote this fall, before the midterm elections.
There are at least five senators to watch as the skirmishing starts – two Republicans and three Democrats – with abortion a central issue in deliberations on both sides.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
Collins is the most moderate Republican in the Senate, and she’s been the most outspoken Republican so far about the pending Supreme Court vacancy. An abortion rights supporter, Collins has said she would have deep misgivings about a nominee who opposes Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
“A candidate for this important position who would overturn Roe v. Wade would not be acceptable to me, because that would indicate an activist agenda that I don’t want to see a judge have,” Collins said Sunday in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.”
“What I want to see is a nominee who, regardless of his or her personal views on the very difficult and contentious life issue, is going to respect precedent,” the Maine Republican said.
Collins, who has bucked her party on other key issues such as health care, said she plans to have an in-depth conversation with Trump’s nominee. She said there were certain names on the president’s short list who she would not support, although she didn’t specify who those people were.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska
Murkowski has been more circumspect in her public comments, but the Alaska Republican also has an independent streak and supports abortion rights.
Speaking at a news conference in Anchorage on Monday, Murkowski said Trump should pick a nominee in the same mold as Kennedy and highlighted his role as the swing vote in many consequential decisions, according to the Associated Press.
Murkowski has not said how abortion would factor in to her decision on Trump’s proposed replacement. But she vowed to cast an “independent” vote.
“My standards for Supreme Court nominees are extremely high,” she said in a statement after Kennedy announced his retirement. “It is my longstanding practice to carefully scrutinize the qualifications of judicial nominees and to cast an independent vote when judicial nominations come before the Senate.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind.
Of the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats, Donnelly may be under the most intense political pressure over this vote. The Indiana Democrat is a top GOP target in this fall’s elections, and he faces a tough climate in a state Trump won by 19 percentage points.
To win re-election, Donnelly needs an energized Democratic base and strong support among suburban women, among other constituencies. A no vote on the nominee could thrill those critical voting blocs – but motivate more Republicans to turn out against him.
Plus, Donnelly is one of the few Democrats who opposes abortion rights, except in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. He has declined to say whether he thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned.
Donnelly has said he would not use any “litmus test” in deciding how to vote on Trump’s high court nominee. And like Murkowski, he said he would like the president to select a moderate nominee “in the mold of Anthony Kennedy.”
Donnelly said he delivered that message directly to Trump when they met at the White House last week to discuss the issue.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, we need you to select a moderate. Someone who is common sense, someone in the mold of Anthony Kennedy, because we need to bring our country together,'” Donnelly told a reporter with the USA TODAY Network.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
Heitkamp is another one of Republicans’ top pick-off opportunities in November, and she’s likely to be feeling the heat from his supporters to back his nominee. Trump won Heitkamp’s state by 36 percentage points. She touts her record of voting with the president more than half the time, but also says she won’t be a rubber stamp when she disagrees.
Heitkamp met with the president last week to discuss his pick for the Supreme Court. She said she urged Trump to pick someone like Kennedy who would not stick rigidly to party lines.
“I told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions,” Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp has voted in favor of abortion rights and said in a statement to USA TODAY Tuesday that it was “very important” that the nominee respect long-settled precedent.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
West Virginia went for Trump by a whopping 42 percentage points, more than any state besides Wyoming. Manchin has tried to align himself with the president and has not ruled out backing the president in 2020.
Manchin is against abortion and has voted with Republicans on the issue. But the West Virginia Democrat has not said if a nominee vowing to overturn Roe v. Wade would swing his vote. Still, Manchin said on a local radio station, a nominee who was “hardcore on Roe v. Wade” would be a “bigger lift” to confirm because the country was equally divided on abortion, according to The Hill.
“I think he needs to get a jurist basically looking at the law. The Roe v. Wade has been the law for 40-some years,” Manchin said.
Manchin’s spokesman Jonathan Kott told USA TODAY said the most important quality the West Virginia senator was looking for in a nominee didn’t have to do with abortion, but rather, health care. Kott said that Manchin didn’t want a nominee who had publicly opposed the Affordable Care Act.