CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia heard a mixed verdict Thursday from his red-state constituents about President Barack Obama's Supreme Court selection, and told them he was undecided about whether he'd back Merrick Garland but vehement about giving him a vote.
The town hall was attended by about 60 people, ranging from gun rights backers to members of the state's progressive Citizens Action Group. In contrast to the calm mood at Manchin's event, the issue has sparked fierce debate in Congress.
The meeting came eight days after Obama nominated Garland, a longtime federal judge, for the high court vacancy. He would replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month.
With West Virginia's solid Republican track record in recent national elections, Manchin faces a more challenging political calculation over Obama's pick than many other Senate Democrats. Manchin has said he plans to run for re-election in 2018.
"You have a situation where the most unpopular person in the state is the president," Manchin said. "So if they think it's all about the president — this is not about the president. Our country's bigger than the president."
Manchin said Garland's experience is of utmost importance, but he also noted West Virginia's concerns on guns, abortion and coal.
"If they think he's going to be voting pro-abortion all the time, anti-gun all the time, it'd be a big problem," Manchin told reporters.
Underscoring the state's longtime dependence on the fading coal industry, one speaker, veteran John Koch of Charleston, told Manchin, "Oppose this, don't even meet with the guy, or anybody else that Obama puts up" until there's a truce in the "war on coal."
Republicans and Obama opponents often use that term to describe Obama's efforts to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired plants that contribute to global warming.
Others said judicial qualifications should be driving the Senate's decision.
"The idea ought to be that we pick people who are qualified and can do the job, instead of a vote on what all of their opinions are," said Anthony Majestro, an attorney who has represented the state Democratic Party.
Manchin said he will compile a list of West Virginians' concerns and bring them to Garland. He said his main question for the nominee is whether he looks at regulations established by federal agencies differently than if Congress voted on them.
As a longtime federal judge, Garland is considered a liberal-leaning moderate. If confirmed, he could alter the high court's 4-4 tie between liberal and conservative justices, and some of his past rulings might pose problems with West Virginia voters.
On the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Garland has often sided with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including dissenting in a case that overturned industry-opposed rules curbing haze-causing emissions. In 2007, he voted to review a decision that had struck down restrictions on gun rights in the District of Columbia.
Garland is currently chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington and a former federal prosecutor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says the Senate won't consider a nominee until the new president takes office next year. Democrats want a vote.
West Virginia is one of three states where the conservative Judicial Crisis Network has begun ads aimed at Democratic senators. The group says it is spending $250,000 in West Virginia for a spot on television, radio and online.
The announcer does not mention Garland by name but says Obama wants to appoint a justice who "would weaken the right to bear arms, hurt the coal industry and trample the Constitution."
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.