A sharp partisan battle opened Saturday over whether President Obama should nominate a successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The news of Scalia’s death was a bombshell in an already lively election cycle, as both sides quickly recognized a story that would reverberate in the races for the House, Senate and presidency.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday.
GOP presidential candidates and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSchumer blocks one-week stopgap funding bill Overnight Finance: Dems explore lawsuit against Trump | Full-court press for Trump tax plan | Clock ticks down to spending deadline Hundreds of former EPA employees blast Trump on climate change MORE (R-Ky.) had statements out within two hours of the Scalia news that mixed praise for the justice with calls for Obama to punt the decision to the next president.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said in a statement Saturday. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.
Democrats argued that waiting until 2017 would be an unprecedented dereliction of duty, while some liberals asked why there was even a question about Obama offering up a nomination.
“The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons,” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump on presidency: 'I thought it would be easier' Trump threatens to scrap 'horrible' South Korea trade deal New science-fiction book set in future where Clinton won MORE said in a statement.
She ripped Republicans, saying those “who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution.”
The reason for the outbursts was simple: The stakes are high.
A Supreme Court nomination fight would dominate Obama’s final year in office and send ripples throughout the 2016 presidential race. It could also help determine the majority of the Senate.
If the Senate does not confirm a nominee this year, it will mean that the leadership or direction of all three branches of the federal government will effectively be determined by voters in November.
Republican White House hopefuls, including Sens. Ted CruzTed CruzNet neutrality fight descends into trench warfare Secret Service: No guns at Trump NRA speech Cruz: Breaking up 9th Circuit Court ‘a possibility’ MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco RubioOvernight Defense: Commander calls North Korea crisis 'worst' he's seen | Trump signs VA order | Dems push Trump to fill national security posts What’s with Trump’s spelling mistakes? Boeing must be stopped from doing business with Iran MORE (Fla.), echoed McConnell in calling for the next commander in chief to make the decision.
Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyComey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee GOP to kill language exempting staff from new ObamaCare repeal bill House cyber chairman wants to bolster workforce MORE (R-Iowa), who leads the committee that would oversee a Supreme Court nomination, agreed.
“Given the huge divide in the country, and the fact that this president, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to use the courts to circumvent Congress and push through his own agenda, it only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court justice,” the Judiciary Committee chairman said.
Democrats in the Senate are asking for a quick nomination.
“It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat,” Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (D-Nev.) said in a Saturday statement. “Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential Constitutional responsibilities.”
Reid’s office pointed out that a Democratic Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy, a nominee of former President Reagan, to the Supreme Court in 1988, his final year in office. Kennedy was confirmed after Democrats killed the nomination of conservative jurist Robert Bork.
Democrats argued the court is facing too many important issues to leave only eight justices on the bench.
The court will hear cases this year on the legality of Obama’s executive actions on immigration, a Texas voting rights case and a challenge to the University of Texas’s affirmative action policies.
If there are not nine justices serving on the court, there is a real possibility those cases could result in a 4-4 tie, meaning that the lower court rulings would stand in each case.