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U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch is sworn in to testify at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

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By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch faces a gruelling day of questioning from Democrats on Tuesday on how he might rule on contentious social issues like abortion and whether he is sufficiently independent from the man who picked him, President Donald Trump.

With the ideological balance of the Supreme Court at stake, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold the second day of its confirmation hearing for Gorsuch, a conservative federal appeals court judge from Colorado. Republicans, who control Congress, have praised Gorsuch, 49, as highly qualified for a lifetime appointment as a justice.

Gorsuch appeared genial and composed on Monday in delivering his opening statement, but Tuesday's questioning by committee members of both parties could cause more drama. Despite slim chances of blocking his nomination in the Republican-led Senate, Democrats have raised questions about Gorsuch's suitability for the job.

In his opening statement to the panel on Monday, his first public remarks since Trump nominated him on Jan. 31, Gorsuch defended his judicial record, emphasizing the need for "neutral and independent judges to apply the law."

Democrats outlined their lines of attack in their opening statements on Monday, with some senators saying they would press him on whether he is independent enough from Trump, who has condemned federal judges who have put on hold his two executive orders to ban the entry into the United States of people from several Muslim-majority countries.

Gorsuch will also face questioning over cases he has handled on the appeals court in which corporate interests won out over individual workers.

Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, said she wanted assurances that Gorsuch would not seek to overturn the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States. She and other Democrats are also expected to question Gorsuch on whether he would support gun restrictions, campaign finance laws and environmental regulations.

Like past Supreme Court nominees, Gorsuch will face the task of giving little away about how he might rule in future cases while endeavouring to engage with senators.

Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican chairing the Senate panel, said the committee is likely to vote on the nomination on April 3, with the full Senate vote likely soon after. The hearing could last four days.

If Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he would restore a narrow 5-4 conservative court majority. The seat has been vacant for 13 months, since the death of conservative justice Antonin Scalia.

The court's ideological leaning could help determine the outcome of cases involving the death penalty, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations, transgender rights, voting rights, immigration, religious liberty, presidential powers and more.

Republicans hold 52 of the Senate's 100 seats. Under present rules, Gorsuch would need 60 votes to secure confirmation. If Gorsuch cannot muster 60, Republicans could change the rules to allow confirmation by a simple majority.

Click http://tmsnrt.rs/2nANgEj for graphic on Confirming Gorsuch

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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Reuters