RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Last night, President Donald Trump made good on his promise to appoint a conservative justice to the court to replace the late Antonin Scalia. His choice? Judge Neil Gorsuch.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The qualifications of Judge Gorsuch are beyond dispute. He is the man of our country and a man who our country really needs and needs badly to ensure the rule of law and the rule of justice. I would like to thank Senate leadership. I only hope that both Democrats and Republicans can come together, for once, for the good of the country.
MARTIN: We're going to hear now from a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee on whether or not that is likely to happen. His name is Chris Coons. He's a Democratic senator from Delaware, and he's in the studio with us this morning.
Senator, thanks so much for coming in.
CHRIS COONS: Thank you, Rachel. Great to be with you.
MARTIN: Some of your Democratic colleagues have said they plan to filibuster the Gorsuch appointment - nomination, rather. Are you planning to do the same?
COONS: Well, let's first be clear about what a filibuster means here. The two justices that were confirmed under President Obama's term both had to clear a 60-vote bar. Both Justice Kagan and Justice Sotomayor were confirmed by a greater than 60-vote margin. And Senator Schumer has already said he will insist on a 60-vote margin for this vote. That is technically, quote, unquote, "a filibuster," but I find in talking to folks at home in Delaware that they have a image in their head - perhaps from movies - that a filibuster means putting on a diaper, staying up all night and talking for 12 hours.
What I'm focused on is the first step which is ensuring that Judge Gorsuch gets the full and thorough hearing and vetting in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by President Obama for this vacancy nearly a year ago, never received. I think the American people deserve to hear what Judge Gorsuch's answers are to probing and tough and challenging questions about his views on a wide range of constitutional issues.
MARTIN: Do you understand that instinct by some of your colleagues to do the same, to retaliate in response to what the Republicans did to the Merrick Garland nomination?
COONS: Of course. Judge Garland was a terrific man, is a balanced and thoughtful and capable jurist. When Justice Scalia passed away, I and a number of other Democrats called on President Obama to nominate someone who is eminently qualified and eminently confirmable, and Merrick Garland was that nominee. It was outrageous. It broke all precedent in the last hundred years in the Senate Judiciary Committee for Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans to deny him even a hearing or a vote on committee for most of a year.
MARTIN: What about Donald Trump's Cabinet picks? Because Democrats have been walking out and boycotting votes most recently on the nominations for secretary of treasury, Steve Mnuchin; health and human services secretary, Tom Price. What do you make of that action?
COONS: Well, we have relatively few levers to challenge President Trump's nominees, and we are using what tools we have. Yesterday, for example, Senator Sessions was to be voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on which I serve.
MARTIN: This is Jeff Sessions, who's up to be attorney general.
COONS: Correct. And we - each of us chose to speak long enough that we pushed the vote another day. And to...
MARTIN: Which could be seen as being obstructionist, which Donald Trump has suggested it is.
COONS: Which - could be seen as obstructionist or could be seen as making sure that we've made clear to everybody what our views are and why we are voting against him. So there are relatively few tools we have at our disposal, and we will use them because frankly the executive orders that President Trump has issued in recent days are cause for real alarm. And in a number - in a case of a number of these nominees, particularly the attorney general nominee, the secretary of state nominee, we don't have an answer from them yet about their views on what I think is an unconstitutional ban on Muslims.
MARTIN: So you're calling for people to come together to give Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court nominee, a hearing, but you see that somehow as fundamentally different than the Cabinet picks that you think need more consideration.
COONS: We did give Senator Jeff Sessions a very full hearing, two full days in fact. And I commend the committee chairman for doing that, for letting us have a nine-hour hearing where Senator Sessions answered virtually every question we put to him, and we then had a full second day. That's the sort of hearing I'm envisioning also on the Senate Judiciary Committee for Judge Gorsuch.
MARTIN: From what you know of Judge Gorsuch, could you see yourself supporting him?
COONS: I'm going to keep an open mind. I'm going to dig into his record. I've already started reading into the background of a number of his cases. He is on the conservative end of the legal spectrum, and he supports a number of radical departures from settled law that concern me, but I'm going to dig into the details and the background and look forward to meeting with him.
MARTIN: Lastly, I want to ask you about the National Prayer Breakfast. You were co-chair of that event. It's an annual event. It's supposed to happen tomorrow. President Donald Trump is expected to be there. What would you like to hear from him?
COONS: Well, for 65 years every president has addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. This is a remarkable gathering of more than 3,000 people from more than 150 countries, from all faith backgrounds and from all 50 states. And it's my hope that President Trump will present us with a healing, positive and constructive vision of prayer and its role in our country. We are certainly going to have some great remarks from the chaplain of the Senate, a number of senators and congressmen will speak as well. Hopefully, it'll be a positive and uplifting experience at a time when we badly need it.
MARTIN: Senator Chris Coons - he's a Democrat from Delaware and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator, thanks so much for coming in.
COONS: Thanks for a chance to be on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.