By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its confirmation hearing for President Donald Trump's U.S. Supreme Court nominee, conservative federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch, beginning on March 20, the panel's Republican chairman said on Thursday.
The hearing is likely to last three to four days, with Gorsuch and committee members making opening statements on the first day, the nominee facing questions on the second day and outside experts also testifying, Senator Chuck Grassley said.
Grassley said in a statement that Gorsuch, nominated by Trump on Jan. 31, has so far "met every demand" posed by Democrats, who are the minority party in the Senate but can still delay action if they can muster enough votes.
"He's a mainstream judge. He's displayed independence. He's met with dozens of senators who have nothing but positive things to say. He is well-qualified and respected," Grassley said.
Supreme Court nominees require Senate confirmation for the lifetime job on the nine-justice court. With four liberals and four conservatives now on the court, Gorsuch's confirmation would restore the conservative majority that had existed for decades until the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Democrats, still furious over the Republican-led Senate's refusal last year to consider Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee Merrick Garland to replace Scalia, have raised questions about whether Gorsuch would be willing to demonstrate independence from Trump if confirmed to the job.
In light of Trump's pointed criticism of judges who ruled against him in the past, Democrats are likely to question Gorsuch about the importance of an independent judiciary.
After courts put on hold Trump's ban on people entering the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, the president criticized the proceedings as "disgraceful," called one of the jurists a "so-called judge" and labeled the judiciary "so political."
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said last week Gorsuch told him during a private meeting that Trump's comments about the judiciary were "disheartening and demoralizing," an account that Gorsuch's spokesman, Ron Bonjean, confirmed but Trump disputed.
The Senate's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, last week accused Gorsuch of avoiding answering questions "like the plague" during their private meeting and dodging efforts to gauge his judicial independence.
Trump's fellow Republicans control the Senate 52-48 but Schumer has insisted Gorsuch would need to win 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to move toward confirmation. Democrats can seek to use a procedural maneuver to block a confirmation vote if Gorsuch's supporters cannot muster 60 votes, although Republicans could change the Senate rules.
If the hearing goes smoothly and the full Senate votes to confirm him soon afterward, Gorsuch could be on the court before the end of the court's current term in June.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)