WASHINGTON — Key moderate Democrats are playing their cards close to their chest as they head into next week's hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.
A group of Senate Democrats — some of whom are facing 2018 reelection battles in red states — said in early February that they were open to supporting President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, but that they needed to do their "due diligence" and meet with Gorsuch before making a decision.
Meanwhile, a group of liberal-leaning senators have vowed to vote against any nominee that isn't Judge Merrick Garland, former president Barack Obama's pick for the job. The announcement cheered many liberal activists who have been pressing Democrats to do all they can to block President Donald Trump's agenda.
Now, less than a week before hearings on Gorsuch begin, many moderate Democrats — whose votes will determine whether he is confirmed and, potentially, whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deploys the so-called "nuclear option" and drops the 60-vote threshold to get Gorsuch confirmed — are saying they haven't made up their minds yet.
But the senators — which include some traditionally left-leaning members — say a range of issues could sway their vote.
"I'm going to be looking at some of his past decisions," said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who is facing reelection in a state Trump won by more than 20 points last year. "I read the Hobby Lobby decision and I'm familiar with his stand on end of life decisions. There's some other decisions I want to read his opinion on."
Whatever his decision on Gorsuch, Tester added that changing the way Supreme Court justices are reviewed in the Senate by invoking the nuclear option would be "a mistake."
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is also up for reelection in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump last year, said that he, too, has not made up his mind on Gorsuch. "We're waiting for his hearing," he said.
Manchin agreed that judicial independence is an important issue, but would not expound on what he needs to hear at the hearing in order to decide.
"There will be a lot coming out of the hearing," he said. "I think those hearings are always so helpful and that's what we're going to wait for."
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who represents a much bluer state, has met with Gorsuch twice in recent months and remains undecided as well heading into the hearings. Coons told BuzzFeed News he wants to know why the nominee has devoted significant time to the issue of physician-assisted death during his career.
"Judge Gorsuch wrote a book about physician-assisted suicide in which he embraced the principle of the inviolability of human life. I'm interested in how he applies that," Coons said.
Like Tester, Coons said he's concerned about the opinions Gorsuch wrote in the Hobby Lobby case, as well as Little Sisters of the Poor. "And he's in a dozen cases dissented or concurred in his own opinion in ways that indicate an inclination towards activism that I'm also interested in."
"He violates a core principle of judicial economy which is, decide the thing that's before you and nothing else. He decides the thing before him and then says, 'but I have these other interests and concerns', and that's neither good nor bad," Coons said.
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine expressed similar interest in whether or not Gorsuch is "a judicial activist," a label that's been thrown at the judge by opponents.
Other senators from typically blue states states are also holding their fire on Gorsuch.
"No, of course not," said Sen. Dick Durbin when asked if he had made a decision. Durbin, who sits on the Judiciary Committee that will hear from Gorsuch next week and is also a member of Democratic leadership, said he's looking for "good answers" from the judge at the hearing, but would not specify what issues he's most interested in.
Manchin has previously said he thinks there will be enough Democrats to get Gorsuch confirmed without resorting to the nuclear option. “I believe if you meet with him, there’s always eight,” Manchin said. “I always believe there’s eight, 10, 12, 15 [senators who are] moderate, responsible, in the middle; basically not going to be ideologically pushed to one side or the other.”
McConnell said last week that Gorsuch would be confirmed before Congress recesses in April.