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Liberals Put Political Money in Spotlight of Gorsuch Fight

Senate Democrats urged to probe nominee’s views on campaign finance law

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, seen here meeting with Judge Neil Gorsuch last month, is facing pressure from liberals and conservatives ahead of the Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation hearings. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, seen here meeting with Judge Neil Gorsuch last month, is facing pressure from liberals and conservatives ahead of the Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation hearings. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic lawmakers and liberal interest groups are intensifying their pressure on senators to probe Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s views on campaign finance law during his confirmation hearings next week.

“He does not come into this with the benefit of the doubt in his favor,” said Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Judiciary Committee member. The panel is scheduled to begin the Colorado judge’s hearings at 11 a.m. Monday.

“When the Republicans get five members on the Supreme Court and can create a Republican majority, they go on a wild shopping spree,” Whitehouse said, adding that the aim of such a spree is to “help corporations against people.”

Senate Republicans have praised Gorsuch, whom President Donald Trump announced as his nominee on Jan. 31 to fill a vacancy left more than a year ago by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate GOP leaders blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, during the heated 2016 campaign.

Gorsuch supporters note that he had bipartisan support when he was confirmed on a voice vote to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in 2006.

Even though House Democrats have no say in Gorsuch’s confirmation, more than 100 of them sent a letter Tuesday pressing senators to ask specific questions of the federal appeals court judge next week, such as how he would have ruled in the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that helped pave the way for big-money super PACs.

“He hasn’t written a lot explicitly on this topic, but he’s written enough to signal that he seems to be moving in the wrong direction here,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who spearheaded the letter, during a news conference call Tuesday. “That’s why it’s so important that these questions get put to him in his confirmation hearings.”

Sarbanes pointed to a recent report by the liberal think tank Demos, which examined the Supreme Court’s role on campaign spending in the 2016 elections. Demos concluded that various high court rulings, including the Citizens United decision, led to more than $3 billion in spending during the cycle, or 45 percent of the total spent in 2015-2016.

The report also states that Supreme Court rulings allowed “123 wealthy candidates to spend $161 million on their own campaigns,” according to its summary. The Demos report also credited the high court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld post-Watergate campaign donation limits but struck down limits on wealthy individuals who self-fund their campaigns.

The report did not specifically mention Trump, but he did provide millions of dollars to his campaign and bragged of self-funding during the Republican primary.

Sarbanes said the report showed how “highly consequential” Gorsuch’s nomination is when it comes to political money issues.

“As members of Congress, we, first hand, experience how the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on campaign finance has completely altered how campaigns are run, how policy is made in Washington,” he said.

Liberals view campaign finance matters as potentially their best shot at derailing Gorsuch’s nomination. It would give moderate Democrats, in particular, a reason to oppose him without touching on more politically controversial issues such as abortion or gun rights that would not play well in conservative states.

If Gorsuch does not woo eight senators from the Democratic caucus to win 60 votes in the chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could scrap filibuster rules for Supreme Court nominees so only a simple majority would be needed to confirm the 49-year-old judge. Republicans hold 52 Senate seats.

Both parties interested in the Supreme Court fight are keeping a close eye on the 10 Democrats up for re-election in 2018, such as Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who hail from states won by Trump.

“It’s going to be kind of an epic internal struggle,” Whitehouse said of Senate Republicans’ possible filibuster debate.

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