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Key administration players in the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation process

Within hours of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court, several Democratic senators pledged to oppose his confirmation. Considering Gorsuch’s unquestionable qualifications for the job, Democrats are largely latching on to the Republicans’ refusal to consider former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Chief Judge Merrick Garland, as a reason to oppose any nomination by President Donald Trump, regardless of the nominee. In fact, even before Trump’s announcement, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) declared that “this is a stolen seat” and that “we will use every lever in our power to stop this,” indicating an intention to filibuster.

However, a number of Democrats, especially those hailing from red states, have shown a willingness to consider Gorsuch’s nomination. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said that “we should debate his qualifications on the Senate floor,” indicating that he would vote for cloture, the procedure that can end a filibuster and allow for a vote. Democrats could lose up to seven senators from their party (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats) and maintain the filibuster, which would require a vote of 60 to overcome.

Currently, the Senate rules allow for a filibuster on Supreme Court nominees, but not on nominees for seats on lower federal courts. Democrats enacted the “nuclear option,” a rule change that eliminated the filibuster for lower-court nominees but kept the Supreme Court filibuster intact, in 2013, overcoming a blockade by Republicans of several Obama nominations. It is expected that the Trump administration will now attempt to court Democratic senators to both oppose a filibuster and vote for Gorsuch’s nomination. The following breakdown looks at the key administration players who will be helping to shepherd Gorsuch through the confirmation process.

Kelly Ayotte, former Republican senator

Former Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte will lead the White House team guiding Gorsuch through the Senate, a position often referred to as the “sherpa.” A major part of this effort will involve introducing Gorsuch to senators (Vice President Mike Pence has stated that Gorsuch will meet with every senator “if they take the meeting.”). Ayotte is a moderate Republican who lost her New Hampshire Senate seat last fall to then-Gov. Maggie Hassan by only about 1,000 votes. Ayotte was likely chosen for her Senate relationships on both sides of the aisle, in the hope that she can help convince some Democrats to support Gorsuch.

Ayotte had a difficult election. She was forced to walk a line between showing allegiance to her party and maintaining some distance from Trump in a state that ultimately went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in the election. She faced fire from both sides for a comment suggesting that Trump might be a role model, which she later walked back, saying that she “wouldn’t hold either of them [Trump or Clinton] as role models for my kids.” After the recording of Trump talking about groping women surfaced last October, Ayotte withdrew all support for Trump and said she would write in Mike Pence for president.

Trump had previously indicated that Ayotte would not be welcome in the administration. However, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Wednesday: “I think Senator Ayotte very helpfully offered up her services. She’s got a lot of relationships on both sides of the aisle; she’s got a tremendous amount of experience in this field, and I think the president thought she was extremely qualified to do this.” She kicked off the Senate visits Wednesday by accompanying Gorsuch and Pence to meet with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The rest of the nominee’s team

Campaigning for a Supreme Court nominee has changed in recent nomination cycles. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush’s candidates were all shepherded by outside lawyers and attorneys in Justice Department. President Obama, however, used White House staff, including people from the White House counsel’s office, the White House legislative affairs office, and Vice President Joe Biden’s staff.

According to the Washington Post’s report on the nominee’s team, it seems as though Trump is employing both White House employees and a significant group of former Hill staffers. The lead staffer will be Makan Delrahim, director of nominations for the White House legislative affairs office, who has also worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Other White House staffers involved will include Rick Dearborn, deputy White House chief of staff and former chief of staff to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) (who has been nominated as attorney general). Perhaps in anticipation of a significant Senate fight, the bench includes a number of Hill insiders, including Ron Bonjean, former chief of staff to the Senate Republican Conference, and Mary Elizabeth Taylor, former aide to Sen. McConnell.

The press team

Outside conservative groups are preparing to spend millions of dollars on Gorsuch’s campaign, with the Judicial Crisis Network pledging $10 million on advertisements. Inside the White House, the media blitz will be led by Sean Spicer, White House press secretary. Four of Spicer’s deputies met on the Friday before the announcement at the National Republican Senatorial Committee office with other White House officials, Republican senators, and the outside groups funding the fight.

In his press briefing the day after Gorsuch’s nomination, Spicer was effusive in his praise of Trump’s choice. He focused on the bipartisan nature of the selection, mentioning some of the senators who were in office during Gorsuch’s last confirmation and noting the Democratic senators who have already suggested that Gorsuch be considered by the Senate.

Spicer is a longtime Republican communications strategist. He served as communications director for the Republican National Committee from 2011 until his appointment by Trump as White House Press Secretary and Communications Director.

Other key players

Vice President Mike Pence:

Pence has played a significant behind-the-scenes role in the nomination. Before the announcement, Pence met with moderate Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) as part of the effort to reach the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster, as well as with former vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and various Republican senators. After the nomination, Pence joined Gorsuch and Ayotte at the nominee’s first Hill meeting with McConnell. He has stated that he is “hopeful” that McConnell won’t have to deploy the nuclear option and is “heartened” that seven Democrats have already expressed their support for a vote.

Don McGahn, White House Counsel:

Along with Pence, McGahn met with Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee prior to the announcement. McGahn was involved with this process early on as an attorney for the Trump campaign and helped develop the initial shortlist for Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. McGahn is known for his efforts to limit campaign finance reform and his “bare-knuckle style”. McGahn previously served as Commissioner of the United States Federal Election Commission and as chief counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Recommended Citation: Molly Runkle, Key administration players in the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation process, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 3, 2017, 12:53 PM),