Republican women Collins and Murkowski could determine the fate of Trump's Supreme Court pick

  • As President Donald Trump chooses a Supreme Court nominee, Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will be important swing votes.
  • The senators' support for a court choice could hinge on whether the judge pledges to uphold Roe v. Wade, the ruling that legalized abortion nationally.
  • Both Collins and Murkowski voted to confirm conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, right, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, right, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski once again have a chance to decide whether President Donald Trump reaches one of his key goals.

The senators will be swing votes in a narrowly divided Senate on whether to confirm the judge Trump picks to fill retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy's seat on the Supreme Court. Their votes could hinge on whether the top court nominee signals support for upholding precedent on Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationally. Kennedy's departure has raised fears among abortion rights advocates that the new court could weaken or overturn the decision.

The confirmation process again sets the Republican senators up as foils after they bucked GOP leaders and Trump to help sink the party's Obamacare repeal plan last year. If Democrats unite in opposition to Trump's choice — which they did not do when the Senate confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch last year — one Republican defection would doom the judge's confirmation.

Both Collins and Murkowski have generally supported abortion rights. Trump's choice could be a person hostile to the Roe ruling, as conservatives will vet and give advice on the potential nominees.

As a candidate in 2016, Trump pledged to appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Also during the campaign, he said, "There has to be some form of punishment" for women who get abortions.

In interviews Sunday, Collins said she would not favor a Supreme Court choice who has shown opposition to the Roe decision.

"I would not support a nominee who demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade because that would mean to me that their judicial philosophy did not include a respect for established decisions, established law," the Maine Republican told CNN.

Collins met with the president and told him she would not back some of the people on his existing shortlist of 25 candidates, she separately told ABC News. The senator urged Trump to expand his list.

Trump plans to announce his pick July 9. If confirmed, the justice would set the court's balance at five judges appointed by Republican presidents and four chosen by Democrats. While Republican President Ronald Reagan picked Kennedy, he joined four other justices in 1992 in a ruling upholding Roe v. Wade.

Collins said she believes both Chief Justice John Roberts and Gorsuch, the Trump-appointed conservative, would respect legal precedent on the abortion rights decision. However, that is not assured, even though the judges have generally expressed support for established law.

A spokeswoman for Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, did not respond to CNBC's request to comment on whether the senator would support a nominee who is critical of Roe v. Wade.

Voters agree with the court's ruling in that case by a 63 percent to 31 percent margin, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Monday.

Republicans hold a 51 seat to 49 seat majority in the Senate. Only 50 GOP senators are currently voting as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., fights brain cancer.

Both Collins and Murkowski voted to confirm Gorsuch last year. Three Democrats running for re-election this year in red states — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — joined the GOP in confirming the justice.

If those three senators again decide to back Trump's nominee, the stances taken by Collins and Murkowski would not matter. The Democrats may have even more motivation now to support the court choice, as a vote could take place shortly before November's midterm elections.

Last week, Trump said he would not ask the potential nominees about their views on Roe v. Wade. He described his possible choices as "highly talented, very brilliant, mostly conservative judges."

"As the president said last week, he's not going to talk to judges about specific cases. He is looking for individuals that have the right intellect, the right temperament, and that will uphold the Constitution," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Monday.

Trump interviewed four potential justices on Monday. It is unclear who he met, and Sanders would not identify the candidates.