With All Eyes on Joe Manchin, He Is All Ears at a Supreme Court Round Table

Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, during a round-table discussion in Charleston on Friday. “I’m not going to make a political decision nine or 10 minutes after someone announces” a judicial appointment, Mr. Manchin said.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senator Joe Manchin III is just doing his homework.

That’s how Mr. Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, described a round-table discussion about President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, with about two dozen local and state leaders on Friday.

The round table, and Mr. Manchin’s careful contemplation of his decision, underscore the tightrope being walked by Democrats running for re-election in states Mr. Trump carried in 2016.

If they vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh, senators like Mr. Manchin, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota risk fracturing the party. But if they vote against him, they risk jeopardizing their seats in November’s midterm elections — and a shot at a Democratic majority.

Mr. Manchin, who is a pivotal piece of the Democratic leadership’s uphill bid to block the nomination, gave few indications during the meeting of how he would ultimately vote.

“I’m not going to make a political decision nine or 10 minutes after someone announces,” Mr. Manchin said. “Whether you’re leaning with the person or not, you want to find out more.”

Mr. Manchin said that one of the things he was considering was whether a nominee would follow the Constitution and established precedent.

“I’m looking for someone on constitutionality and also on rule of law,” Mr. Manchin said at the start of the meeting, adding that he might host additional round tables before he meets with Judge Kavanaugh in the coming days.

But questions at the forum largely focused on maintaining health insurance coverage for those who have pre-existing conditions, with concerns raised about Judge Kavanaugh’s track record on health care issues on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

He wrote a dissenting opinion in a 2011 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Some Democrats have seized on that dissent to assert that he would not vote to uphold patient protections in future cases, though the dissent provided only limited visibility into his thinking.

“Senator, our concern is about health care,” said Julie Archer, a project manager at the WV Citizen Action Group, highlighting the 800,000 West Virginians with pre-existing conditions.

Mr. Manchin has shown himself willing to work with the president on his agenda. The senator has voted in line with Mr. Trump’s position 60 percent of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight — the highest rate among Democratic senators. That included a vote to confirm Justice Neil M. Gorsuch last year.

Still, on issues such as union protections and civil liberties that particularly resonate with liberals, some round-table participants expressed concerns about how a staunchly conservative justice would upset the balance of the court.

“To have someone that has been recommended by the person who pushed Janus over is terrifying,” said Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ West Virginia branch, referring to the recent Supreme Court decision that unions can no longer automatically collect agency fees.

And Andrew Schneider, executive director at Fairness West Virginia, an L.G.B.T.Q. advocacy organization, said he was concerned that Judge Kavanaugh — who said when Mr. Trump announced his nomination that he “is part of the vibrant Catholic community” in Washington — may uphold religious claims that are “used as a sword rather than a shield, and use it to opt out of civil rights laws.”

As Mr. Manchin listened to the group’s concerns, he expressed frustration over the increasing lack of “decorum” he sees on both sides of the aisle that is making the nomination process so rancorous — which has ultimately led much of the political and media spotlight to be trained on his vote.

“Harry Reid started it as a Democrat, Mitch finished it off as a Republican, so both sides are guilty,” said Mr. Manchin, referring to Mr. Reid’s altering of Senate rules in 2013 to allow judicial nominees to be confirmed by a simple majority vote, and Mitch McConnell’s refusal to give Judge Merrick B. Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, a hearing in 2016.

Attendees repeatedly thanked Mr. Manchin for taking the time to hear their concerns, and recognized the difficult choice he will have to make, most likely before the midterms.

“I would not like to be sitting in his seat,” said Jeanne Peters of the anti-Trump group Wood County Indivisible, but added that she personally would like for him to vote no on the nomination.

But when Mr. Manchin was asked the day before while waiting on the tarmac to board a plane to West Virginia whether the political pressure was weighing on him, he was quick to dismiss the notion.

“He’s a West Virginian,” a fellow passenger standing next to him chimed in. “We don’t feel pressure.”

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