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FILE PHOTO - 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. on March 20, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/File Photo

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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic senator delivered a 15-1/2-hour, all-night speech denouncing President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee on Wednesday, joining an effort to block Senate confirmation of Neil Gorsuch in a heated political showdown with Republicans.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley began his speech on the Senate floor Tuesday evening and wrapped up mid-morning on Wednesday. The Senate was expected on Thursday to hold a vote to try to end a Democratic procedural effort called a filibuster aimed at blocking Gorsuch's confirmation to a lifetime seat on the court.

Republicans were expected to fall short of halting the filibuster and then hold a vote to change the Senate rules to prohibit filibusters against Supreme Court nominees. Republicans said Gorsuch will be confirmed on Friday one way or the other.

Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, to the lifetime post would reinstate the court's conservative majority and allow Trump to leave an indelible mark on America's highest judicial body.

Towards the end of his marathon speech, Merkley looked weary and as he stood on the Senate floor, his suit jacket unbuttoned and his yellow tie billowing out. He stood beside an easel holding graphics that an aide would periodically adjust.

"For the first time in U.S. history, a seat has been stolen from one president and delivered to another in a court-packing scheme. If that were to succeed, it would set a precedent that will haunt the court for decades to come," Merkley said.

He was referring to the fact that the Republicans who control the Senate last year refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nomination of appeals court judge Merrick Garland for the same vacant seat Gorsuch has been named to fill.

At one point, Merkley read a speech by one of the past giants of the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd, decrying partisanship in Congress.

"I believe that the American people are more than tired of partisan warfare. I believe they wish for less of it from Congress, especially in the Senate, where more statesmanship and a longer view are expected," Merkley said, quoting Byrd.

Merkley criticized Gorsuch's legal opinions including one against a fired truck driver as well as his writing against legalized euthanasia for terminally ill people. He said Gorsuch would become a conservative legal activist on the court.

The Senate has a lengthy history of long speeches, including two notable ones by current Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

Republicans defended their stonewalling of Obama's nominee and said Gorsuch, a conservative Colorado-based federal appeals court judge, is well qualified for the post.

Democrats say Gorsuch is so conservative as to be outside the judicial mainstream, has favored corporate interests over ordinary Americans in legal opinions, and has shown insufficient independence from Trump.

'COMPLETE DEMOCRATIC OPPOSITION'

"Democrats are bowing to hard-left special interests that can't get over the results of the election and thus are demanding complete Democratic opposition to everything this president touches," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor shortly after Merkley finished.

McConnell has said he had the votes necessary to approve the rule change with a simple majority vote. Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The rule change has been dubbed the "nuclear option," and Trump has encouraged McConnell to "go nuclear."

A filibuster requires a super-majority of 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate in order to proceed to a simple majority vote on a Supreme Court nominee or legislation.

The 60-vote super-majority threshold that gives the minority party power to hold up the majority party has forced the Senate over the decades to try to achieve bipartisanship in legislation and presidential appointments.

The Senate on Tuesday kicked off its formal debate on confirming Gorsuch.

The White House on Wednesday denied that Gorsuch had engaged in plagiarism after media reports accused the judge of copying some language and failing to cite relevant sources in a book he wrote in 2006 about assisted suicide and euthanasia.

"There is only one explanation for this baseless, last-second smear of Judge Gorsuch: those desperate to justify the unprecedented filibuster of a well-qualified and mainstream nominee to the Supreme Court," White House spokesman Steven Cheung said in a statement.

Indiana lawyer Abigail Lawlis Kuzma, who wrote the article Gorsuch was accused of copying, said in a statement provided by White House-allied Gorsuch supporters that the passages in question were "factual, not analytical in nature," and that it would have been difficult for Gorsuch to use different language.

"I have reviewed both passages and do not see an issue here," Kuzma said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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