GOP unity cracks in court fight

Greg Nash

Freshman GOP Sen. Thom TillisThom R. TillisRepublicans root for Pence as VP Texas Republicans pushing death penalty bill for cop killers GOP senators blast Ginsburg comments about Trump MORE warned Tuesday that his party risks being seen as “obstructionist” in a fight over Supreme Court nominations with President Obama.

The remarks from the North Carolina Republican are the first crack in GOP unity since Saturday’s stunning news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, whose passing has put the tilt of the court in question. Scalia’s successor seems likely to determine whether its majority will lean liberal or conservative.

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Republicans are under enormous pressure to block any nominee from Obama, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ky.) quickly put out a statement after Scalia’s death stating that the vacancy should not be filled until a new president takes office.

Yet the GOP also faces enormous risks with its strategy if it turns off independent voters already irritated by Washington’s dysfunction.

Tillis’s comments Tuesday on “The Tyler Cralle Show” seemed to acknowledge this dilemma.

“I think we fall into the trap, if we just simply say sight unseen — we fall into the trap of being obstructionist,” he said in comments first noted by Think Progress, a left-leaning website.

Tillis added that he would not support a liberal nominee, and argued that Republicans should use “every device available” to block someone who is “in the mold of President Obama’s vision for America.”

Democrats have pounced on McConnell’s statement, arguing the Republican Party is effectively ignoring the fact that Obama remains president.

The Senate leader’s original comments signaled to many that there would not be a hearing for an Obama nominee, let along a vote in the Senate.

On Tuesday, however, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyTop Dem Senate hopefuls to skip convention Election to shape Supreme Court Why one senator sees Gingrich as Trump's best VP choice MORE (R-Iowa) appeared to back away from that position, arguing it was at least possible a hearing could be held on an Obama nominee.

“I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions. ... In other words, take it a step at a time,” he told reporters, according to Radio Iowa.

Grassley’s comments were a shift from his comments on Saturday, just hours after the news of Scalia’s death.

“It only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court Justice,” he said at the time.

McConnell spent much of 2015 — the first year of the GOP majority in the Senate — working to show the chamber could function in Republican hands.

His party approved a budget and passed measures on trade, national security, Medicare and transportation.

With a big fight over Scalia, however, McConnell’s record of a do-something Senate could come under attack.

“This puts McConnell’s message about being the end of gridlock completely in the toilet,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

“Virtually nothing is going to happen if the Senate refuses to act on the Supreme Court nomination. Democrats will use that to refuse to cooperate on every other issue,” he said.

Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, rejected that claim.

“The Senate has a lot of work to do this year and we’re going to continue doing our work,” he said.

Senate Democrats warn that blocking Obama’s nominee without even considering his or her merits and record would mark a complete breakdown in bipartisanship.

“If Republicans proceed, they will ensure that this Republican majority is remembered as the most nakedly partisan, obstructionist and irresponsible majority in history,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidSuper-PAC targets Portman on trade Dem leader urges compromise on FCC set-top box plan Senate Dems introduce Iran sanctions extension MORE (Nev.) wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

The fight has huge implications in this year’s battle for a Senate majority.

Democrats need to pick up at least four seats to win back the chamber. Such gains are possible given a battlefield in which Republicans are defending six seats in states won in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 by Obama.

One vulnerable Senate Republican incumbent, Mark KirkMark KirkNBA pulls All-Star Game from NC over bathroom law GOP groups scale back support for Sen. Johnson Top GOP senator: Trump will have little effect on Senate races MORE of Illinois, has declined to say whether he will vote to filibuster the Supreme Court nominee. 

So far, Kirk has only urged his colleagues to “take time to honor his life before the inevitable debate erupts.” His Democratic challenger, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (Ill.), has urged him to reject McConnell’s “obstructionist and unconstitutional gambit.”

A flare-up in partisanship also risks derailing bipartisan legislation, such as a bill to combat opioid abuse — a top priority for vulnerable Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteKasich doesn't regret skipping convention Top GOP senator: Trump will have little effect on Senate races Hindu-American emerges as Trump mega-donor MORE (R-N.H.).

Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said the fight over Scalia could hurt Ayotte with independent voters.

“Perhaps they like Ayotte because she’s taken less than conservative positions on some issues. That’s the group that she risks,” he said.

Ayotte and other vulnerable GOP incumbents, including Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanThe Trail 2016: Trump’s big night Portman: Trump has 'potential' to help GOP candidates Kasich doesn't regret skipping convention MORE (R-Ohio) and Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonThe Trail 2016: Putting the past behind them GOP groups scale back support for Sen. Johnson GOP works to unify around Trump MORE (R-Wis.), say the next president should appoint Scalia’s successor, giving 2016 voters across the nation a say in the matter.

While that position will please conservative voters, it risks their support among independents.

“It’s going to be an issue in the Senate races in four or five pivotal states,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

—Jordain Carney contributed.