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As Neil Gorsuch Avoided Tough Questions, Senators Turned on Each Other

5 minute read

Neil Gorsuch proved to be adept enough at evading difficult questions that the senators at his confirmation hearing started training their fire on each other.

As President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee faced his second day of questions on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee spent quite a bit of time blaming each other for hard-edged partisanship on the committee and in the Senate as a whole.

Each party was trying to spin the story about the upcoming vote on Gorsuch’s nomination: Republicans said Democrats are being biased against a mainstream and qualified nominee, while Democrats said Republicans are hypocrites after refusing to hold a hearing for President Obama’s nominee for the same seat, Merrick Garland.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina came out hardest against his Democratic colleagues first, using the opening minutes of his time to decry the increasing divisiveness in judicial nominations.

If we’re going to vote against a nominee because they won’t tell us the things that we want to hear about issues important to us, then the whole nominating process has become a joke,” Graham said, referencing how Gorsuch has declined to comment on specific cases. “I think politics has changed. And I think it has changed in a fashion that we should all be ashamed of as senators.”

Other Republicans said that Gorsuch’s qualifications show that Democrats’ opposition to him means they’re the unreasonable party.

“Why anybody in this body would vote against you I’ll never understand,” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah told Gorsuch. “Admittedly you’re of a different political persuasion perhaps than some of my friends on the other side, but I’ve supported people who are totally different than my beliefs.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz cried foul at what he called insincerity on the part of the Democrats over their criticism of Trump’s attacks on judges, noting that they had raised questions about the role of dark money in groups supporting Grouch’s nomination, among other lines of attack.

“These are serious attacks, many of them impugn your integrity directly,” Cruz said. “My colleagues the Democrats have a right to engage in whatever attacks they choose. But it’s a little rich for them to be maligning a sitting federal judge and at the same time giving speeches about how unacceptable it is for anyone to criticize a federal judge.”

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse echoed Cruz’s criticism, saying what some Democrats have been saying about Gorsuch is “reckless” and imploring Democrats to not split in a party-line vote on his confirmation.

“If [people] see something like Republicans voted one way and Democrats voted another way, and they have echoing in their ears the sounds of people saying that you [Gorsuch] are some sort of a shill for big business and the American people should be scared of you, we will have done in this body something to further erode the public trust,” he said.

The Democrats on the committee responded by saying the Republicans are the ones guilty of hypocrisy. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who Graham called out by name for holding Gorsuch to a different standard than past Democratic nominees, invoked Garland.

“[Graham] pointed out that President Obama nominated two Supreme Court justices. I think the record should show that President Obama nominated three Supreme Court justices, one of whom was Merrick Garland,” Leahy said. “The Republican Party ignored the Constitution, did not allow him to have his vote, did not allow him to come before this body. … The first time in the history of the United States the Senate refused to hold hearing, refused to have a vote.”

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken furthered the Garland argument by rejecting what Gorsuch himself has claimed during his hearing: the idea that judges aren’t political. “You said earlier there’s no Democratic judges, there are no Republican judges,” Franken said. “If that’s the case, what was Merrick Garland about? That’s what it was about.”

“You clearly understand that our political system has a great impact on the courts,” Sen. Mazie Hirono echoed later. “If not, we could have Judge Garland before us, not you.”

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin criticized Republicans for the softball questions they’ve been lobbing at Gorsuch and not thoroughly vetting a nominee by a president of their own party.

“My Republican colleagues assumed the elemental courtroom strategy of never asking a question that will hurt their witness and made every effort to humanize you so we know your love of fly fishing and rodeos and family,” Durbin said. “So the Democrats on the committee have asked you for answers to hard questions and tried to peel back your professional and carefully-guarded persona so that we might understand whether there’s any chance there’s a beating heart or an independent streak in Donald Trump’s most important decision of his nascent presidency.”

Members of the judiciary committee also pursued substantive lines of questioning alongside their political clashes. In one particularly rich exchange, Durbin questioned Gorsuch about a decision he had made about an autistic child’s education that was unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court this morning. And many continued, unsuccessfully, to try to establish Gorsuch’s views on hot button topics like abortion, same-sex marriage and money in politics.

Still, as he looked up at the lawmakers sniping on the dais, Gorsuch said that he feels confident in the Senate.

“I know in our civic culture today there’s a great pessimism about our government,” he said. “I don’t share that. I think this body still works.”

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Write to Tessa Berenson Rogers at tessa.Rogers@time.com