Colorado Dem at the center of Gorsuch confirmation fight

Colorado Dem at the center of Gorsuch confirmation fight
© Greg Nash

Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetTrump's FDA nominee clears key Senate committee Dems knock Trump on Earth Day Dem pushed plan for both sides to admit to abusing Senate rules: report MORE is stepping into the middle of the fight over President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

The Democrat helped fellow Colorado Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Commander calls North Korea crisis 'worst' he's seen | Trump signs VA order | Dems push Trump to fill national security posts Senators get North Korea briefing in unusual WH visit A Vandenberg movement in Congress MORE (R) introduce the nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, on Monday as the Judiciary Committee started the first day of its weeklong hearing. 

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Bennet isn’t on the committee or up for reelection. But outside groups on both sides are increasingly tracking the mild-mannered Democrat as a swing vote as the battle over Gorsuch kicks into high gear.

The Colorado senator praised Gorsuch’s ties to his home state and warned Democrats about rejecting Trump’s nominee out of hand just because Republicans refused to give former President Obama’s nominee for the seat, Merrick Garland, a hearing or a vote.

“As a person and as a lawyer, Judge Gorsuch exemplifies some of the finest qualities of Colorado — a state filled with people who are kind to one another, who by and large do not share the conceit that one party or one ideology is all right and the other all wrong,” he said.

Referring to lingering Democratic anger over Garland, Bennet added that “two wrongs never make a right” and that the tactics the GOP used to block Garland are “an embarrassment to this body that will be recorded in history.”

But Bennet appeared to try to thread the needle, pairing his push for a fair hearing for Gorsuch with criticism of Trump’s penchant for publicly and personally attacking individual judges.

Though Bennet largely limited his praise to Gorsuch’s personal history and ties to Colorado, his warm comments stood in stark contrast to remarks from his Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary Committee.

The nine senators used the hours-long opening salvo to preview the grilling they’ve planned for Gorsuch, painting him as a jurist who favors corporations and special interests.

“Our job is to assess how this nominee’s decisions will impact the American people and whether he will protect the legal and constitutional rights of all Americans,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinDemocrats exploring lawsuit against Trump Overnight Finance: Dems explore lawsuit against Trump | Full-court press for Trump tax plan | Clock ticks down to spending deadline Comey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee MORE (Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat.

She added that “[the court] decides whether billionaires and large corporations will be able to spend unlimited sums of money to buy elections.”

Bennet stressed on Monday that he has not made up his mind on Gorsuch’s nomination and was only following Senate tradition by helping introduce a nominee from his home state.

“I am keeping an open mind about this nomination and expect this week’s hearings will shed light on Judge Gorsuch’s judicial approach and views of the law,” he said.

If he ultimately opposes Gorsuch, Bennet wouldn’t be the first senator who helped introduce a Supreme Court nominee during his or her Judiciary Committee hearing only to vote against them once the nomination reaches the floor.

Then-Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) helped introduce one of Obama’s nominees, Elena Kagan, during her Supreme Court hearing, only to vote against her nomination during her Senate confirmation vote.

But both conservative and liberal outside groups are increasingly turning their fire on Bennet, who won another term last year, because of Colorado’s purple political leanings and his own ties to Gorsuch.

Carrie Severino, the chief counsel for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, noted that Gorsuch is “beloved” in Colorado and would be the state’s second Supreme Court justice.

“Sen. Bennet has to decide between supporting an exceptionally well-qualified judge with broad support from more than 200 prominent Democrat and Republican lawyers in Colorado alone including former Obama Administration officials, and going along with Washington gridlock,” she said in a statement to The Hill. “Sen. Bennet, your constituents are watching.”

The outside conservative group is pledging $10 million to help get Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court. The organization launched an ad against Bennet earlier this year saying he was “threatening gridlock” and choosing “Washington liberals” over Gorsuch.

Concerned Veterans for America, a group aligned with GOP mega-donors David and Charles Koch, is using its latest round of web ads to target Bennet and a group of red-state Democrats up for reelection.

Meanwhile, the conservative group America Rising Squared blasted out a video last week of Bennet leaving a town hall in Colorado, saying that the Democrat “runs away” when asked about Gorsuch.

The same group circulated a note to reporters ahead of Bennet’s comments on Monday, describing the Supreme Court nominee as a Colorado native who “has received broad support from Coloradan newspapers … lawyers, Senator Cory Gardner, former Democrat Governor Bill Ritter, and former CO Attorney General John W. Suthers.”

But any move by Bennet to support Gorsuch would earn the Colorado senator swift backlash from progressive groups, which warn that any vote for Gorsuch is a vote for the Trump agenda.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said on Monday that the group is “disappointed” by Bennet’s comments.

“I appreciate that he’s looking for comity among his colleagues, but the question I would ask is, ‘At what expense?’ ” she told The Hill. “Most want the nomination blocked and at least want to know that he’s asking the right questions.”

The group had called on Bennet to use his introduction to “highlight the truth” about Gorsuch, including that he is the “most conservative nominee in modern history.”

The party’s resurgent liberal wing is demanding that Democrats use the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster threshold to try to block Gorsuch’s nomination.

Late last week, a constituent at a town hall confronted Bennet about concerns about Trump’s nominee. ProgressNow Colorado, an in-state group, has started a petition calling on Bennet and Gardner to reject Gorsuch and “not stand by and allow Donald TrumpDonald TrumpEPA removes climate change page from website Trump claims millions in savings on Air Force One Presidents with the worst first 100 days MORE to steal this Supreme Court seat.”

Hogue added that supporters of the “People’s Defense” — a coalition of roughly a dozen outside groups including NARAL — will call senators, including Bennet, throughout the week to voice their opposition to Gorsuch’s nomination.

“What we’re urging our members is to make clear that it’s within their power to block this nomination,” she said.

Bennet has signaled that he will wait to listen to Gorsuch’s answers during his hearing before making a decision. The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the nomination by April 3, with GOP leadership wanting to have a full Senate vote before lawmakers leave for a two-week recess.

Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinLawmakers reintroduce online sales tax bills Democrats exploring lawsuit against Trump Senators warn of 'dangerous' cuts to International Affairs Budget MORE (Ill.) — the No. 2 Senate Democrat — defended Bennet on Monday, noting the Colorado senator had “made it clear he was undecided.”

“He was doing this as a courtesy to a fellow Coloradan,” he said. “I certainly respect him for that.”