First two Democrats back Trump's Supreme Court pick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp on Thursday became the first Democrats to support the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, giving Republicans two of eight Democratic votes needed to avoid a nasty fight on the U.S. Senate floor next week.

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Both West Virginia’s Manchin and North Dakota’s Heitkamp are up for re-election next year in states that voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

“I hold no illusions that I will agree with every decision Judge Gorsuch may issue in the future, but I have not found any reasons why this jurist should not be a Supreme Court justice,” Manchin said in a statement. Manchin met with the nominee for a second time on Wednesday night.

Heitkamp said that Gorsuch “has a record as a balanced, meticulous and well-respected jurist who understands the rule of law.”

If confirmed by the Senate to fill a vacancy created by the February 2016 death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat high court’s conservative majority.

Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said on Thursday they would vote against Gorsuch. Their announcements mean 35 of the 48 Democrats in the 100-seat Senate oppose Gorsuch, the Colorado-based federal appellate judge nominated by Trump in January for a lifetime post on the high court.

Most Democrats have said they would back an effort to block a confirmation vote using a procedural hurdle called a filibuster that requires 60 votes to allow a confirmation vote.

But there are some seeking to avoid such a move, including Chris Coons of Delaware.

“I’m open to anyone who’s got a reasonable suggestion for how we might slow what seems to be an inexorable path towards changing the rules,” Coons said on Thursday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on sending the nomination to the Senate floor on April 3. Republican Senate leaders hope to confirm Gorsuch on April 7.

Republicans control the Senate 52-48, meaning they need to win over eight Democrats to block a filibuster. The confirmation vote itself would require a simple majority.

Eleven Democrats, including Coons, have yet to announce whether they would vote against Gorsuch or support a filibuster.

Some Democrats have said Republicans “stole” a Supreme Court seat last year when the Senate refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham and Lisa Shumaker