Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch tours Capitol as Democrats count votes

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WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's Supreme Court team whisked nominee Neil Gorsuch to the Capitol Wednesday in a packed day that amounted to one part victory lap and another part listening tour as Republicans try to gauge whether Democrats will attempt a filibuster.

Top Democrats delivered a spitfire response to Gorsuch's selection Wednesday, but the senators as a group remain far from unified. Liberal stalwarts stopped just shy of flatly calling for a filibuster of Gorsuch -- instead sticking close to a message that the nominee should win the support of at least 60 senators before he is guaranteed a vote in the Senate.

Republicans see a clear opening to divide Democrats by focusing on the 10 Senate Democrats who represent states Trump won just months ago and face re-election in less than two years.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat likely to face a tough re-election battle, said she was still deciding whether to support Gorsuch. "I can't imagine I would vote for cloture if I don't want him to be the nominee," she told CNN.

And Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, another Democrat being targeted by Republicans, said he was still reviewing Gorsuch's record but, like McCaskill, would not vote to end a filibuster if he ultimately opposed the nominee.

"If I don't like the guy, I won't vote for cloture," he said.

From the right, conservative groups have bought ads in the home states of Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and others.

While on the left, major Democratic operatives launched pressed the same Democrats to fight Gorsuch. Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democratic group Priorities USA, sent an email directed at many of the senators he previously helped elect with the subject line "Too dangerous not to resist."

Vice President Mike Pence and former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, meanwhile, led Gorsuch on a tour through the Capitol Wednesday, meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Cory Gardner and others, including Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Manchin, one of 10 Democrats explicitly targeted by Republicans, urged his Democratic colleagues not to hold Garland's treatment against Gorsuch.

"That's not what we were sent here to do. That's not what I'm going to do," Manchin said Wednesday. "I'm anxious to sit down with the new nominee to find out more about him."

Trump pushes 'nuclear option'

But Trump himself has urged Republicans to exercise the "nuclear option" -- lowering the threshold to break a filibuster of a Supreme Court pick from 60 to 51 -- if Democrats attempt to block Gorsuch.

"If we end up with that gridlock I would say if you can, Mitch, go nuclear," Trump said of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. "That would be an absolute shame if a man of this quality was caught up in the web."

Senate Republican leaders declined Wednesday to say whether thought they would need to use the "nuclear option." Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said "it's too early. I don't know."

But the Trump administration was optimistic Wednesday that it may get to the 60 votes needed to avoid a showdown, saying it saw more paths to Gorsuch's confirmation than simply through vulnerable Democrats.

A White House aide noted that Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin's comments Tuesday that he wanted a vote for Gorsuch -- clear opposition to a filibuster -- could be based on Durbin's support for maintaining the Senate's historical decorum.

Democrats upset about Garland

In many ways, the mere pageantry of parading the high court nominee through the Capitol was a stinging reminder for Democrats of Republicans' successful blockade of Merrick Garland last year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will vet Gorsuch, said Wednesday that Garland had been "humiliated" by Republicans.

"There still is a lot of feeling on our side as to what happened with Judge Merrick Garland. He should not have been humiliated. He should not have been rebuked," Feinstein told CNN's Raju.

Only a handful of Republican senators even agreed to meet with Garland after Obama nominated him -- other Republicans explained they saw no point in meeting with him if they wouldn't be voting for him.

While Gorsuch met with Gardner Wednesday, a senator from his home state of Colorado, reporters fired off a few questions about his prospects. But the two men continued their conversation about football.

By Tom LoBianco, Ted Barrett and Manu Raju