Pence hopeful Senate won’t have to go ‘nuclear’ in Supreme Court fight

Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday he hoped Senate Republicans would not have to use a rule change to fast-track the approval of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, just hours after the president urged GOP leaders to pursue the action to confirm Neil Gorsuch if Democrats use stall tactics.

“I’m hopeful he doesn’t,” Pence said, referring to the possibility that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., might have to pass a rule change, commonly referred to as the “nuclear option,” allowing Senate Republicans to break a potential Democratic filibuster and confirm Gorsuch on a simple majority vote.

The position marked a more optimistic tone than comments made by President Trump earlier Wednesday, when he urged McConnell, the Senate majority leader, to use the ”nuclear option” if necessary to thwart Senate Democrats who oppose Gorsuch’s nomination. The change would allow Republicans to confirm Gorsuch with 50 votes, instead of the 60 needed under the current rule.

“… If we end up with that gridlock I would say, ‘if you can Mitch, go nuclear,’” said Trump in response to a reporter’s question earlier in the day.

But Pence said he was “heartened” that seven Senate Democrats have already said they think Gorsuch deserves an up-or-down vote and don’t plan to filibuster his nomination, which was announced by President Trump on Tuesday in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Pence said Gorsuch, a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, had a “first-class intellect” and approached the law in a “fair and impartial way.”

“We believe he’ll get the same level of consideration” that Supreme Court nominees received in President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama’s first terms in office, Pence said.

READ MORE: Senate GOP united, Democrats skeptical of Trump’s Supreme Court pick

Pence also defended McConnell’s decision last year to block the nomination of Merrick Garland, Obama’s pick to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, whose vacant seat Gorsuch would take if he gets confirmed by the Senate.

“It was a vacancy in an election year, and I think it’s important to remember that the court itself, the federal government itself, belongs to the American people,” Pence said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Pence also defended President Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration. The order imposed a temporary ban on immigration from seven majority Muslim countries, creating confusion at U.S. airports and prompting protests around the nation.

Pence said the order fulfilled a campaign pledge by President Trump to “implement extreme vetting” on immigrants attempting to enter the country.

“We really do believe that this temporary pause [to] evaluate our screening process, and making sure people coming into the country don’t represent a threat, is appropriate,” Pence said.

The immigration order, while deeply unpopular with President Trump’s critics, has been praised by his supporters as an important step toward securing the nation’s borders. The order was also in line with the views of some advisers in the president’s inner circle, including Steve Bannon, whose role now includes an influential seat on the National Security Council.

Pence appeared to downplay Bannon’s influence in the White House, saying that the former head of Breitbart News was part of a larger group of aides the president relies on for advice.

“We value Steve Bannon’s input,” Pence said, but President Trump “asks for input from everyone in the senior circle, and a lot of people outside the senior circle.”

Pence also touched on the Trump administration’s relationship to members of Congress and its outreach to the public.

“In the early days of this administration we’ve been engaging very regularly on a broad range of issues with members of the Senate, and we’ll be continuing to improve that effort,” Pence said.

Pence said that President Trump intended to accomplish the agenda he outlined during his campaign. But at the same time, Pence said President Trump’s early messaging was intended to appeal to all Americans, not just the voters who backed the president in the election.

“He’s committed to being the president for every American,” Pence said.

Watch our full interview with Vice President Mike Pence during our Feb. 1 broadcast.

Editor’s Note:  This article has been updated to clarify Vice President Pence’s quote about the nuclear option, and to add more context to his statement and the earlier statement by President Trump. Also, the vice president’s office clarified after the interview that he misspoke in characterizing Steve Bannon’s rank in the Navy. He was not a captain, but instead a lieutenant.