Sens. Donnelly, Heitkamp to meet with Kavanaugh

Two red state Democrats are scheduled to meet Wednesday with President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, highly anticipated meetings that could set the tone for where some of the Senate’s most vulnerable Democrats land on appeals court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and Joe Donnelly — both members who face tough re-elections this fall in states Trump handily won — are among the first Democrats to meet with Kavanaugh, preceded only by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Heitkamp, Donnelly and Manchin also broke with their leadership and voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.

No Democratic votes are required to confirm Kavanaugh after a rules change last year, but that is only if Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can hold his entire Republican conference together, a tall order with some independent-minded members. So far, key swing votes Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins have not said if they plan to back Kavanaugh.

Heitkamp and Donnelly’s meetings come after thousands of documents related to Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House were released last week. The documents include records of Kavanaugh’s time in the White House counsel’s office. Records related to his time in as staff secretary won’t be released despite Democratic complaints that Republicans are hiding critical information.

Another issue for the Democrats: Kavanaugh’s records are being screened by a group of lawyers working for Bush and by a team of lawyers from the Department of Justice. Democratic senators say the current process risks the omission of materials that would reveal Kavanaugh’s true record.

It’s not expected that either Donnelly or Heitkamp would immediately decide on whether or not they would support Kavanaugh.

“I want to get a sense of who he is as a person,” Heitkamp told CNN in an interview Tuesday in Bismarck, North Dakota ahead of the meeting with Kavanaugh. “You aren’t going to get him to answer questions on, ‘what if this case came in front of you?’ I tell people who say, ‘well, he is going to do this,’ I say, ‘number one, you never know that someone is going to do.’ I mean, look at the Burger court. No one would have predicted that they made the decision that they made. The single most important thing for me is somebody who approaches ever case with a completely open mind.”

After his meeting, Manchin told reporters he still wanted to read more about Kavanaugh as well as see him in his confirmation hearing, which has been scheduled for September 4 in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I’ve told him, my thing is now is what until he has his Judiciary hearing. When the hearing is over, I will want to call him back in to sit down and go over basically what we heard today. What we have looked into in more detail and also seen what he said to the Judiciary hearing to see if there’s anything we need clarification on,” Manchin said after his meeting.

But while Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly are preparing for hard-fought re-election campaigns, they are also under pressure from their base and Democratic leaders to stay united against Kavanaugh — especially if there are any Republican defections — an example of the precarious balancing act the lawmakers face as they weigh Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the interview with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in Bismarck.