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Biden and Democrats work to secure GOP votes for Supreme Court pick

Three Senate Republicans voted to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to a federal appeals court eight months ago, but that is no guarantee she will win any GOP support this time
The U.S. Capitol
News of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court kicked off a flurry of activity Friday at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Kamm / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON —Senate Democrats were bullish Friday that they could stick together and confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s pick for the Supreme Court. 

The bigger question was whether Biden and Democrats could win any Republican votes in a crucial midterm election year, with both parties battling for control of the Senate and House.

If confirmed to replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, the 51-year-old Jackson would become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court at a moment when the nation is grappling with a racial reckoning over systemic inequality and police violence.   

So Biden and the Democrats are essentially daring Republicans to go on record and vote en masse against a nominee who is poised to make history on the high court. 

“This momentous occasion in history is long overdue. Black women carry the nation on their shoulders and they bear the brunt of so much responsibility in our community. They work hard , arrive early and stay late even when they should be leaving."

Rep. Frederica Wilson

On top of that, only three Republican senators — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — joined all 50 Democrats just eight months ago in voting to confirm Jackson to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The vote was viewed at the time as a precursor to a likely Supreme Court nomination.

In 2013, the Senate unanimously voted to confirm Jackson by a voice vote to a seat on the U.S. District Court. 

“To be the first to make history in our nation, you need to have an exceptional life story,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who as the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee will be managing Jackson’s confirmation hearings. “Judge Jackson’s achievements are well known to the Senate Judiciary Committee as we approved her to the D.C. Circuit less than a year ago with bipartisan support.”

Of the trio of Republicans to watch, Collins — who has voted for Biden’s judicial picks 87 percent of the time, according to an NBC News analysis — appears the most likely to back Jackson.

On Friday, Collins called Jackson “an experienced federal judge with impressive academic and legal credentials” and said she plans to meet with her and “conduct a thorough vetting” of her nomination.

Murkowski, who has backed Biden’s judicial picks 81 percent of the time, remains a wild card, while Graham voiced displeasure with Biden’s choice on Friday though he did not say he would vote no. Graham had been pushing for J. Michelle Childs, a federal judge in his home state of South Carolina whom Graham viewed as more moderate than Jackson.

Jackson’s nomination “means the radical Left has won President Biden over yet again,” Graham said in a statement. “The attacks by the Left on Judge Childs from South Carolina apparently worked.”

News of Jackson’s nomination kicked off a flurry of activity at the White House and on Capitol Hill on Friday morning. White House officials briefed Judiciary Committee Democrats for about half an hour, multiple sources said, with Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell saying on the call that Biden remained optimistic he could still secure some GOP votes and that the president would be reaching out to Republicans personally in the coming weeks.

And Vice President Kamala Harris was making calls to her former Senate colleagues to shore up support for Jackson.

Jackson had been the favorite of liberals who pointed to her experience fighting for civil rights and as a public defender, and her selection will no doubt energize the Democratic base.

But ahead of what’s expected to be a bruising election in November, Biden and the White House also are trying to demonstrate to swing voters that they are working across the aisle and governing in Washington in a bipartisan way. If Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans team up to confirm Jackson, it could hand Biden yet another bipartisan victory following last year’s $1.2 trillion package for roads, bridges and broadband.

If GOP support does not materialize, Democrats would need the backing of every single Democrat because of the evenly split 50-50 Senate.

Supreme Court nomination processes are never speedy — it takes on average 72 days from nomination to final Senate vote — but the White House and Democrats are aiming to move things along as quickly as possible given their razor-thin majority and the unpredictability of past confirmation processes. 

Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., is expected back in the Senate soon; he continues recovering from a stroke and brain surgery. But if a debilitating illness hits another Democrat, it could delay the confirmation vote for Jackson.

Democrats can take solace in this fact: The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Friday he has no plans to throw up procedural roadblocks and try to drag out the process.

In 2018, Judiciary Democrats had tried to use multiple tactics to delay a hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, then-President Donald Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, after sexual-assault allegations against him emerged; and just this month, Republicans boycotted a Banking Committee hearing, leaving the nominations of Biden’s picks for the Federal Reserve in limbo.

“Our review will be as fair and respectful as it is complete and comprehensive. That is what this process demands and what the American people expect, Grassley said in a statement.

“As ranking member, I have no intention of degrading the advice and consent role as Senate Democrats have in recent confirmations. I intend to show up and do the job that Iowans pay me to do.”

In the coming days and weeks, Grassley will work closely with Durbin to craft a questionnaire for Jackson that will be reviewed by committee members. She will also begin meeting one-on-one with senators ahead of her confirmation hearing.  

Most Republicans appear to have already made up their minds. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pointed to his vote against Jackson last year and called her the “favored choice of far-left dark-money groups that have spent years attacking the legitimacy and structure of the Court itself.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who serves on the Judiciary panel, knocked Biden for announcing his pick in the middle of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling it “extremely inappropriate.”

“Once again, Biden is putting the demands of the radical progressive left ahead of what is best for our nation,” Blackburn said, adding that she still plans to meet with the judge. “We must not blindly confirm a justice to serve as a rubber-stamp for a radical progressive agenda.”    

Jackson has won an endorsement from at least one big name in GOP politics: Former House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is related by marriage to Jackson and who was the 2012 vice presidential running mate of now-Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

“Janna and I are incredibly happy for Ketanji and her entire family,” said Ryan, referring to his wife. Ryan introduced Jackson at a 2012 Senate hearing when she was first nominated to the federal bench. “Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, and for her integrity, is unequivocal.”

The daughter of public school teachers and administrators in Miami, Jackson went to Harvard, clerked for Breyer at the Supreme Court, and steadily rose through the federal courts, inspiring many.

“I never dreamed in my lifetime that I would see a Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court and definitely not one that I know personally. She is so qualified and so ready to hit the ground running,” Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., a former public school principal and school board member who has known Jackson’s family for decades, told NBC News.

“This momentous occasion in history is long overdue. Black women carry the nation on their shoulders and they bear the brunt of so much responsibility in our community. They work hard, arrive early and stay late even when they should be leaving,” Wilson added. “I am overjoyed that President Biden kept his promise and over the moon that he chose my personal nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson.”