How Obama, Dems plan to win fight on high court

Greg Nash

President Obama and Senate Democrats plan to reach deep into their bag of tricks and tactics to ensure the Supreme Court dominates the political debate up until Election Day.

Their strategy is to portray the Senate Republican majority as obstructionist on every level, and Democrats are certain they have the advantage.

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“This is not a judge fight; it’s so much more. It’s about Obama being denied the common courtesy given to every president before,” said a senior Democratic aide. “The options are unlimited. We just have to not screw it up.”

The first steps in the White House effort are easy to spot.

A day after Senate Majority ­Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising McConnell dodges on whether Trump is qualified to be president Sunday shows preview: Next steps after Trump upheaval MORE (R-Ky.) said he would not meet with an Obama nominee, the president invited McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyDozens of senators push EPA for higher ethanol mandate Civil liberties group mobilizes against surveillance amendment Brother may I? Congress must reform senseless drug regulation MORE (R-Iowa) to the White House to discuss the court nomination.

McConnell accepted the meeting, even as aides suggested there was little reason for it.

“The leader welcomes the opportunity to reiterate to the president directly that the American people will be heard on this matter, and the nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the fall,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

Obama’s vetting of Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval as a possible nominee also leaked Wednesday.

It’s not clear who leaked the news, but the development helped the White House cast the president as trying to find a nominee who could pass muster with Republicans. GOP Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA Long past time to fix evidence-sharing across borders Obama's great internet giveaway MORE (Nev.) made remarks suggesting that Obama nominate Sandoval.

No one knows whom Obama will nominate in the next few weeks, but most observers expect him to select someone who would be politically difficult for Republicans to reject.

U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sri Srinivasan, for example, would be the first Asian-American or Indian-American to serve on the high court. Srinivasan would also be an attractive candidate because the Senate confirmed him to the lower court in a 97-0 vote.  

Jane Louise Kelly, another federal appeals court judge, has also been mentioned as a possible nominee. Kelly hails from Iowa and was backed by Grassley when the Senate confirmed her unanimously.

No matter who is nominated, Democratic aides predict the White House will find ways to make the GOP look bad for refusing to meet with a nominee.

One tactic would be to invite Republican senators to do so, putting them in the tough spot of having to choose between sticking with McConnell or following the traditions of senatorial courtesy.

A senior Senate Democratic aide noted that Obama’s first nominee to the high court, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, met with more than 70 senators when Democrats controlled the upper chamber in 2009.

“I think it will be very difficult for Mr. McConnell to explain how, if the public concludes that this person is very well qualified, that the Senate should stand in the way simply for political reasons,” Obama told reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office. 

“We’ll see what happens, and I think the situation may evolve over time.”

Two vulnerable GOP senators — Rob PortmanRob PortmanGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Poll: Burr narrowly leads Democrat in NC Senate race MORE of Ohio and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteMcConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Republicans blast latest Gitmo transfer Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote MORE of New Hampshire — said Wednesday they would not meet with an Obama nominee.

Another endangered Republican, centrist Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkDuckworth settles retaliation lawsuit The Trail 2016: Berning embers Senate Dems link court fight to Congressional Baseball Game MORE of Illinois, said Wednesday that he would be willing to sit down with the nominee. Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA House Republicans pushing gun control bill The Trail 2016: Berning embers MORE (R-Maine), another centrist — although one not facing reelection in November — said there should at least be hearings.

The White House will work closely with an array of liberal advocacy groups, which are already planning to hold events next week in New Hampshire and Wisconsin that would target Ayotte and another Republican facing a difficult reelection race, Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonGun-control supporters plan next steps versus NRA McConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote MORE (Wis.).

“We’re going to be focusing on target states. We’re going to be focusing on senators we feel like who really need to be held accountable,” said Drew Courtney, spokesman for People for the American Way, which has played a major role in past court fights. “It’s safe to say that we’ll be going on the air, both radio and television.”

Courtney said his group is focused on New Hampshire and Wisconsin because new polling released by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, shows Ayotte and Johnson are especially vulnerable.

The poll showed that 62 percent of voters in Wisconsin and 59 percent in New Hampshire think the court vacancy should be filled this year. The numbers are even higher among independents.

Grassley is up for reelection this year and is seen as relatively safe.

Still, when he didn’t respond to Obama’s invitation to meet to discuss the nomination process, White House officials told his hometown paper, The Des Moines Register. 

Grassley’s office told NBC News late Wednesday he will meet with Obama, likely next week.

Democrats expect the White House to deploy the president on a nationwide speaking tour, a tactic that was more in favor during Obama’s first term.

Even though his numbers have sagged since the heady days of 2009, when he was the principal spokesman for healthcare reform, Democratic strategists think Obama has a can’t-lose message on the Supreme Court.

They expect the court fight will become a centerpiece of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonPerez mum on VP speculation McConnell: Trump needs to 'catch up fast' on fundraising Rubio: I hope I can trust whoever wins with the nuclear codes MORE’s campaign, too. 

“The president is going to be committed to going around the country and drumming up support for our nominee, and Hillary Clinton is likely going to see this as a very potent wedge issue on the campaign trail,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyMeet the man who sparked the Democratic revolt on guns The Hill's 12:30 Report GOP wins congressional baseball game, ending 7-year losing streak MORE (D-Conn.).

Democratic sources say they expect that Obama’s grassroots advocacy group, Organizing for Action, will launch a series of events around the nation starting on March 3. The group did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House believes it’s on the public’s side when it comes to the court battle. 

Fifty-six percent of Americans believe the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Obama’s nominee, according to a Pew Research Center survey released this week. Just fewer than four in 10 say the Senate should hold off until the next president. 

Democrats say there are various tactics they can use to request the Judiciary Committee to hold confirmation hearings, which would force Republicans to respond and prolong media coverage.

Another possibility is moving a discharge resolution that would bring the nominee straight to the Senate floor, circumventing Grassley.