Senate GOP opens new chapter in judicial nomination wars

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans have gone all in on a Supreme Court gamble that denies even a hearing for any nominee from President Obama.

The unprecedented decision, made before the president has named a nominee, marks a new chapter in Washington’s war over judicial nominations.

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The stakes for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Energy: Judges scrutinize Obama climate rule Reid blocks Thune tech bill over FCC nomination fight McConnell: Senate could drop flood money from spending bill MORE (R-Ky.) and his conference are high.

In the short term, their position will give Democrats a political cudgel to pummel vulnerable incumbents facing reelection.

“His vulnerable people are not going to get off the hook,” said Sen. Charles SchumerCharles SchumerOvernight Tech: Tech pushes for debate spotlight | Disney may bid for Twitter | Dem seeks Yahoo probe Saudis hire lobbyists amid 9/11 fight Consumer bureau remains partisan target after Wells Fargo settlement MORE (N.Y.), Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist. “The public is demanding [action], huge groups are demanding it. We’ve seen data that the millennials care more about the Supreme Court than anybody else.”

The fierce debate could also cause a breakdown in bipartisan relations, threatening legislation on the agenda for the rest of this year.

The biggest consequence may be the precedent it sets for future nominees to the nation’s highest court, however, in an era when parties have begun angling for the presidency earlier and earlier. If Republicans win the White House, Democrats are more likely to retaliate with filibusters to block judicial nominees.

But McConnell sees it as a smart political bet. By “ripping the Band-Aid off,” in the words of one senior GOP aide, he is hoping to limit the political pain to a span of weeks instead of letting Democrats milk the issue for months.

Republicans know they’re not going to confirm Obama’s nominee to replace legendary conservative jurist Antonin Scalia. A liberal successor would dramatically change the ideological balance of the court.

Holding hearings this spring would allow the Obama administration and Democrats to shift the focus to the personal story of the nominee and away from the principle that a president should not make the pick in an election year. Democrats could stretch out stories about GOP obstruction for the rest of the year. Without Senate action, it will be tougher to fuel media interest.

“It’s a smart gamble. They elect him leader to make these kinds of decisions,” said the senior aide. “We were in the middle of a recess, everyone was scattered, and he acted rightly and decisively. Everyone has rallied around him.”

But not all Republicans are convinced.

Some of them have warned that it would be a mistake to shut down Obama’s pick without a fair review.

“It’s common sense to have hearings and then an up-or-down vote and say why you’re opposing a person,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) in an interview. “To just say no [and have] no hearings, no vote, I think that puts us on the defensive. It looks like we’re afraid of something.”

One of the chamber’s most vulnerable Republicans, Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkSenate rivals gear up for debates The Trail 2016: Trump seizes on Charlotte violence Iran president hints at future prisoner swaps, cash settlements with US MORE (R-Ill.), wrote in an op-ed Monday that he and his colleagues have “a duty” to review and vote on the nominee.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, initially warned that his party could “fall into the trap of obstructionists” if it rejects the nominee “sight unseen.”

A Pew poll released this week found that 56 percent of Americans say the Senate should hold hearings, while only 38 percent say those hearings should wait until 2017.

A Fox News poll from last week found that 62 percent of respondents said Obama and Senate leaders have a responsibility to take action on the court vacancy now. Thirty-four percent said Obama should not be allowed to choose another justice so late in his presidency.

But McConnell has done an impressive job in unifying his caucus and quelling dissent.

He moved quickly after Scalia’s death to take control of the debate within his party. He immediately issued a statement declaring that voters should “have a voice” in the selection and that it should wait until next year.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyThe Trail 2016: Fight night Clinton, Trump tied in Iowa, Grassley leads in Senate race Senate rivals gear up for debates MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement an hour later echoing McConnell’s position.

Republicans who diverged from the leadership were quickly corralled back into line.

After his initial off-the-cuff comment on a local talk show, Tillis went into a period of radio silence before signing a letter with other Republican members of the Judiciary Committee Tuesday recommending that no hearings be held on the court vacancy.

Another Republican, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Overnight Energy: Lawmakers kick off energy bill talks MORE (Alaska), told reporters last week, “I do believe the nominee should get a hearing.”

She backtracked the next day, tweeting that Obama should “allow his successor to select the next Supreme Court justice.”

McConnell gave potential dissenters little chance to gather momentum on Tuesday, the Senate’s first full day back in session after the weeklong Presidents Day recess.

He called the Republican members of the Judiciary panel into his office for a special meeting to make sure everyone was on the same page before the entire Republican caucus convened for lunch.

After the meeting, McConnell’s staff helped usher lawmakers briskly into the lunchroom past a waiting phalanx of reporters. One senior aide quickly homed in on Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchInternet companies dominate tech lobbying Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners Overnight Tech: GOP says internet fight isn't over | EU chief defends Apple tax ruling | Feds roll out self-driving car guidelines | Netflix's China worries MORE (R-Utah), who is known to wander off message, to help him open the door to the Mansfield Room, where the broader caucus was gathering.

While the senators were cloistered, the Judiciary Committee released a letter signed by all the Republican members of the panel recommending that no hearings be held this year.

“This committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next president is sworn in on January 20, 2017,” they wrote.

After the meeting, McConnell declared his conference was unified and dug in his heels when reporters peppered him with questions.

“The overwhelming view of the Republican conference in the Senate is this vacancy should not be filled by this lame-duck president,” he told reporters.

“I agree with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that we not have hearings,” he added. “In short, there will not be action taken.”

This story was updated at 8:24 p.m.