By Lydia Wheeler and Jordan Fabian - 01-31-17 20:04 PM EST
President Trump on Tuesday selected Neil Gorsuch to succeed Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, setting up a nasty confirmation battle with Senate Democrats stung over the GOP blockade against former President Obama's pick.
Trump named Gorsuch, a well-respected conservative who sits on the Colorado-based 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, after a drama-packed day that resembled the president's former reality show "The Apprentice."
Trump, making the announcement from the East Wing of the White House before a star-studded GOP crowd, said he had promised to nominate a judge who respected the law and loved the Constitution.
"Millions of voters said this was the single most important issue to them, and I am a man of my word and will do what I say, something the American people have been asking of Washington for a very long time," Trump said.
As he introduced Gorsuch, Trump appeared to relish in the spectacle.
After he narrowed his list of 21 picks to Gorsuch and Judge Thomas Hardiman of the 3rd Circuit, both men came to Washington, giving the appearance that either could be chosen.
A crowd of high-profile Republicans filled the White House's East Wing, including Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Mike Lee, as well as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Iowa), were among the GOP officeholders on hand.
Members of Trump's family, including Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., were also in the audience.
"Was that a surprise? Was it?" Trump asked after Gorsuch and the judge's wife joined him on the podium.
He smiled before turning to the couple to shake their hands.
Trump said Gorsuch is a man our country needs to ensure the rule of law and the rule of justice.
"I hope Senate Democrats and Republican can come together for once for the good of the country," he said.
Gorsuch said he looked forward to speaking with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to answer their questions and hear their concerns.
"Standing here, in a house of history and acutely aware of my own imperfections, I pledge that if I'm confirmed I'll do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great country," Gorsuch said.
Trump's pick did not leak before the official announcement, unusual for Washington. The White House took precautions to keep it under wraps.
The president phoned Gorsuch on Monday to inform him he was the nominee, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters. Staff from the White House counsel's office traveled to Gorsuch's hometown of Boulder, Colo., where they met him at a friend's house.
Gorsuch was driven on back roads to the airport and was flown on a military jet to Washington, the spokesman said.
Senators in the East Room for the ceremony said they only found out Gorsuch would be the nominee hours before it was announced.
If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch would fill out a court split evenly between conservatives and liberals, with Justice Antonin Kennedy, an appointee of President Reagan, often casting the swing vote.
Gorsuch is likely to face a tough confirmation process.
Within minutes of the announcement, Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said he had "serious doubts" that Gorsuch was in the legal "mainstream." Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio) quickly said he would oppose the nomination.
Gorsuch represented a less provocative choice for the court than Bill Pryor, a judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals touted by conservatives. Pryor's views on abortion and gay rights might have made a filibuster unavoidable.
Like Pryor, Gorsuch is seen as an "originalist," someone who attempts to interpret the Constitution as it was written at the time.
But he has won bipartisan support in past confirmation battles. In 2006, he was confirmed to the appeals court by a voice vote after unanimously passing through the Judiciary Committee with praises from the late Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who became a Democrat after Obama was elected.
A Denver native, Gorsuch was appointed to the appeals court by President George W. Bush in 2006. He served as a law clerk for the late Justice Byron White and Justice Anthony Kennedy in the early 1990s.
In 2013, Gorsuch joined the appeals court in siding with the craft store chain Hobby Lobby and Christian bookstore chain Mardel Inc. in their challenge of ObamaCare's requirement that employee healthcare plans cover birth control.
In a concurring opinion in the case, Gorsuch said it was "not for secular courts to rewrite the religious complaint of a faithful adherent, or to decide whether a religious teaching about complicity imposes 'too much' moral disapproval on those only 'indirectly' assisting wrongful conduct."
"Whether an act of complicity is or isn't 'too attenuated' from the underlying wrong is sometimes itself a matter of faith we must respect," he wrote.
The Supreme Court upheld that decision in a 5-4 vote.
At 49, Gorsuch would be the youngest member of the court - a major consideration for Trump, who wants his picks to potentially remain on the bench for decades. Supreme Court justices receive lifetime appointments.
Like Gorsuch, Trump's runner-up is another young conservative who would have likely pleased GOP members. Hardiman serves on the 3rd Circuit alongside Trump's sister Judge Maryanne Trump Barry and has a record of defending the Second Amendment.
But Trump may have another chance to pick Hardiman in the future. Three of the court's liberal justices, two of whom are in their 80s, could retire on his watch.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has promised to raise procedural objections to any Supreme Court nominee from Trump, meaning Gorsuch will likely need 60 votes.
But it is unclear whether Democrats at large will back a filibuster. Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate, meaning they need eight Democratic votes to break a filibuster. Ten Democrats are up for reelection in 2018 in states Trump won. It may be difficult for them to filibuster a nominee such as Gorsuch - though they will be under tremendous pressure from liberal groups to do so.
Democrats remain bitter over the GOP's treatment of Judge Merrick Garland, whom Obama nominated after Scalia's death in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to give Garland a vote or a hearing, arguing the decision on filling Scalia's seat should be made by the next president.
The fact that the new justice will fill Scalia's seat is significant to both sides.
It raised the stakes for Republicans in 2016, as a liberal justice would have shifted the court to the left.
The stakes for Democrats in 2017 are somewhat lower, because Gorsuch would replace a conservative in Scalia. That could be another factor in the decision by many Democrats over whether to join a filibuster.
If Democrats were to block Gorsuch, Republicans would face the choice of whether to change Senate rules using the "nuclear option" so that Supreme Court nominees can be approved with a simple majority vote.
Gorsuch is a graduate of Harvard Law who like Scalia is known for making colorful comments in his opinions. A published author, Gorsuch wrote "The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia" in 2006 arguing against laws to legalize the practice.
He's the son of the late Anne Burford, who became the first female head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and was one of the most controversial appointees of the Reagan administration.
As The Washington Post noted in her obituary in 2004, Burford cut her agency's budget by 22 percent, believing it was too big, too wasteful and too restrictive of a business. She was forced to resign after just 22 months on the job in the midst of a scandal over the mismanagement of a $1.6 billion program to clean up hazardous waste dumps.
Updated at 10:11 p.m.