FILE PHOTO - U.S. Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch testifies during a third day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-led U.S. Senate was poised on Friday to confirm President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick, conservative appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, providing the president with his first major victory since taking office in January.
Republicans have a 52-48 Senate majority and all of them support Gorsuch, as do a handful of Democrats. The vote is expected at 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT) on Friday.
Senate confirmation of Gorsuch, 49, would restore the nine-seat court's 5-4 conservative majority, enable Trump to leave an indelible mark on America's highest judicial body and fulfill a top campaign promise. Gorsuch could be expected to serve for decades, while the Republican Trump could make further appointments to the high court since three of the eight justices are 78 or older.
The expected confirmation would give a boost to Trump. The Republican-led Congress failed to pass legislation he backed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law that was Democratic former President Barack Obama's signature legislative achievement. Courts also have blocked Trump's order to stop people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
His administration also has faced questions about any role his associates may have played in Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help Trump.
Republicans on Thursday overcame a ferocious Democratic effort to prevent a vote by resorting to a Senate rule change known as the "nuclear option."
They disposed of long-standing rules in order to prohibit a procedural tactic called a filibuster against Supreme Court nominees. That came after Republicans failed by a 55-45 vote to muster the 60-member super-majority needed to end the Democratic filibuster that had sought to deny Gorsuch confirmation to the lifetime post.
The move could make it easier for the Republicans to confirm future Trump nominees, with Democrats left powerless to resist even if he gets a chance to replace the court's senior liberal, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or the court's conservative swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, with much more conservative replacements.
The nine-seat Supreme Court has had a vacancy since conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016. Republican Senate leaders refused last year to act on Democratic former President Barack Obama's nominee, appeals court judge Merrick Garland.
A conservative-majority Supreme Court is more likely to support gun rights, an expansive view of religious liberty, abortion regulations and Republican-backed voting restrictions, while opposing curbs on political spending. The court also is likely to tackle transgender rights and union funding in coming years.
Republicans have called Gorsuch superbly qualified and one of the nation's most distinguished appellate judges. They blamed Democrats for politicizing the confirmation process.
Democrats accused Gorsuch of being so conservative as to be outside the judicial mainstream, favouring corporate interests over ordinary Americans in legal opinions, and displaying insufficient independence from Trump.
Gorsuch could be sworn in as early as Friday so he can begin preparing for the court's next session of oral arguments, starting on April 17. The court's current term ends in June.
Gorsuch's first official act would be to participate in the court's private conference on April 13, when the justices will consider new cases to hear. There are appeals pending on expanding gun rights to include carrying concealed firearms in public, state voting restrictions that critics say are aimed at reducing minority turnout, and allowing business owners to object on religious grounds to serving gay couples.
On April 19, the court will hear a religious rights case in which a church contends Missouri violated the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom by denying it funds for a playground project due to a state ban on aid to religious organizations. Gorsuch has ruled several times in favour of expansive religious rights during his decade as a judge.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Trott)