WASHINGTON (AP) - The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee praised President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick on Monday for an "unfailing commitment" to the principle of separation of powers, as Judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation hearing got underway.
"His grasp on the separation of powers - including judicial independence - enlivens his body of work," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in opening remarks to begin the long-awaited hearing 13 months after Justice Antonin Scalia's death created a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The court opening was never filled last year as Republicans blocked President Barack Obama's nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, until a new president could be elected. Senate Democrats remain furious about that GOP obstruction, and are under intense pressure from liberal base voters opposed to Trump, but they enter the hearing divided over how hard to fight his court choice.
"I'm deeply disappointed it's under these circumstances that we begin these hearings," the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, said in her opening remarks, referencing Garland's treatment.
Still, she said senators' responsibility through the hearing was to determine whether Gorsuch is a "reasonable mainstream conservative, or is he not."
Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He arrived in the large and crowded hearing room Monday with amiable smiles all around, and introduced his wife, Louise, other family members as well as law clerks, remarking, "I consider them family, too."
Gorsuch then settled in to listen as Grassley and Feinstein delivered opening statements, which were to be followed by opening remarks from all the other 20 committee members before Gorsuch gets his chance to speak.
Republican Senate leaders intend to move quickly on the nomination. Grassley announced plans for a committee vote on April 3, which would be followed by a vote in the full Senate later that week.
The nomination has been surprisingly low-key thus far on a Capitol Hill distracted by Trump-driven controversies over wiretapping and Russian spying as well as attempts to pass a divisive health care bill. The hearings give Democratic senators a chance to press Gorsuch on issues like judicial independence, given Trump's attacks on the judiciary, as well as what they view as Gorsuch's own history of siding with corporations in his 10 years on the bench.
Gorsuch's supporters dispute such criticism and argue that the judge is exceptionally well-qualified by background and temperament, mild-mannered and down to earth, the author of lucid and well-reasoned opinions.
Gorsuch told Democratic senators during private meetings that he was disheartened by Trump's criticism of judges who ruled against the president's immigration ban, but Schumer and others were dissatisfied with these comments and are looking for a more forceful stance on that issue and others.
Democrats have struggled with how to handle the Gorsuch nomination, especially since the nominee is hardly a fire-breathing bomb-thrower. Democrats are under intense pressure from liberal voters to resist Trump at every turn, and many remain irate over the treatment of Garland, who was denied so much as a hearing last year by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Several of the more liberal Senate Democrats have already announced plans to oppose Gorsuch and seek to block his nomination from coming to a final vote. But delay tactics by Democrats could lead McConnell to exercise procedural maneuvers of his own to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold now in place for Supreme Court nominations, and with it any Democratic leverage to influence the next Supreme Court fight.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The filibuster rule when invoked requires 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination, contrasted with the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.
Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed.