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Monday, April 03, 2017 1:10 am

Donnelly 3rd Democrat to back Gorsuch

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., announced Sunday that he will support confirming Neil Gorsuch for a vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Donnelly becomes the third Democratic senator to publicly endorse President Donald Trump's nominee for the court, joining Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

“After meeting with Judge Gorsuch, conducting a thorough review of his record, and closely following his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I believe that he is a qualified jurist who will base his decisions on his understanding of the law and is well-respected among his peers,” Donnelly said in a statement.

“I was deeply disappointed by the way the most recent Supreme Court nominee, Judge Garland, was treated by the Senate, but as Senator, I can only vote on the nominee that comes to the Senate floor. However, I believe that we should keep the current 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees,” Donnelly said.

The Senate's Republican majority refused last year to consider then-President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the Feb. 13, 2016, death of Justice Antonin Scalia. That denial has been a sticking point for many Democrats since Trump nominated Gorsuch, a federal appellate judge in Denver, for the vacant seat in January.

The Senate's 52 Republicans will need at least eight Democrats to side with them on a procedural vote to end debate and send Gorsuch's nomination to a confirmation vote. The GOP has indicated it will change Senate rules if it cannot reach the 60-vote threshold and instead require a simple majority of the 100-member chamber.

“What I'm telling you is that Judge Gorsuch is going to be confirmed. The way in which that occurs is in the hands of the Democratic minority,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on “Fox News Sunday,” according to Bloomberg.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote today on advancing Gorsuch's nomination to the entire Senate. McConnell announced last week he will have a confirmation vote on Friday. Thirty-seven Democratic senators have said they will oppose sending Gorsuch's nomination to a confirmation vote, CNN reported Sunday. Eight others have not said how they might vote.

Donnelly, Manchin and Heitkamp are among 10 Democratic incumbent senators who will stand for re-election next year in states won by Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Conservative groups including the Republican National Committee, the Judicial Crisis Network and the National Rifle Association have been targeting those senators' votes on Gorsuch in TV ads broadcast in their states.

“Senator Joe Donnelly's decision wasn't the result of dumb luck, it was because Hoosiers from every corner of the state flooded him with calls, letters and tweets demanding that he respect their will and support this outstanding nominee,” Kyle Hupfer, chairman of the Indiana Republican Party, said Sunday in a statement.

“There was nowhere Joe Donnelly could go without hearing from us. Our efforts put him in a box with no way out,” Hupfer said.

Although the first-term senator from Granger apparently is satisfying GOP ­wishes by supporting Gorsuch, Hupfer said, “Hoosiers deserve much, much better than Joe Donnelly.”

Many people posted objections to Donnelly's announcement on his Facebook page. Reactions included “very disappointed,” “Shame on you,” “Senator, you just lost my vote” and “Traitor!”

Donnelly's announcement was no surprise. He, Manchin and Heitkamp are moderate Democrats who sometimes vote with Republicans on legislation, and the three have backed most of Trump's nominees requiring Senate approval.

Donnelly has voted in favor of confirming 15 of Trump's 23 nominees. Heitkamp has voted in favor of 17, and Manchin has voted in favor of 19.

bfrancisco@jg.net