Pence downplays Trump’s call for ‘nuclear option’ in Supreme Court fight

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PBS Newshour's Judy Woodruff, left, talks Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence.

PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff, left, talks Tuesday with Vice President Mike Pence.

Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday he hoped Senate Republicans would not 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.

“I’m hopeful he doesn’t” get confirmed using the nuclear option, Pence said in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, referring to the rule change Senate Republicans could pass to break a potential Democratic filibuster and confirm Gorsuch on a simple majority vote.

The position marked a departure from comments made by President Trump earlier Wednesday, when he urged Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Majority Leader, to use the ”nuclear option” 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.

“My advice is to go nuclear,” Trump said 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 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 Mr. 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 towards 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 all Americans,” Pence said.

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

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