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Republicans resolutely slam door on Obama court nominee

Republicans resolutely slam door on Obama court nominee
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans on Tuesday slammed the door on any formal consideration of a nominee to the Supreme Court by President Obama.

The nominee will not receive a vote, a hearing or even meetings on Capitol Hill, top Republicans declared after returning to Washington for the first time since Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death.

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“The overwhelming view of the Republican Conference in the Senate is this vacancy should not be filled by this lame-duck president,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellGOP eager to see Harry Reid go Overnight Healthcare: Hospitals plot attack against ObamaCare repeal Republicans tie Trump's Defense pick to funding fight MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters.

The extraordinary decision to reject the nominee sight unseen puts both parties in uncharted waters, and ensures that the Supreme Court — and the potential for it to be flipped to a liberal or conservative majority — will be a focal point in the presidential race.

Before Tuesday, there had been doubt as to whether top Senate Republicans would stand behind their initial position that Obama should not be allowed to fill Scalia’s seat.

Some Republicans openly questioned the strategy, warning the party could be tarred as obstructionist in the run-up to the elections.

But Republicans sought to extinguish those questions on Tuesday with a show of unity.

The GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the panel charged with vetting court nominees — appeared together after a morning meeting to announce that there would not be a confirmation hearing for Obama’s pick.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamEx-Im Bank fails to get quorum reprieve in stopgap spending bill Overnight Defense: Funding bill would ease Trump Defense pick's confirmation | Obama delivers final security speech Congress wants hearing on Pentagon wasteful spending charges MORE (R-S.C.) said members of the panel reached a “consensus” that there should not be hearings or a vote.

McConnell held to that line as reporters peppered him with questions at an afternoon press conference.

“I have many faults, but getting off message is not one of them. This nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the fall. I agree with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that we not have hearings,” he said.

“In short, there will not be action taken.”

McConnell and Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchChairman: Trump can play ‘key role’ in tax reform push The Hill's 12:30 Report Senate GOP: National museum should include Clarence Thomas MORE (R-Utah) added, separately, that they would not meet with Obama’s nominee. 

While McConnell said delaying the nominee represents the “overwhelming view of the Republican Conference,” it’s clear that some in his party have misgivings.

The strategy is particularly risky for Senate Republicans facing reelection races this year, many of them in states that tend to favor Democrats.

Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkJuan Williams: McConnell won big by blocking Obama Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates The untold stories of the 2016 battle for the Senate MORE (Ill.), one of the Senate’s most vulnerable GOP incumbents, has said the Senate should take up Obama’s nominee, calling it his “duty” to consider the choice. He stood by that position on Tuesday.

Similarly, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsMedicare looms over Trump-Ryan alliance Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump Cornyn: ‘Virtual certainty’ Sessions and Price will be confirmed MORE (R-Maine), who won reelection in 2014, said Obama’s nominee should at least get a hearing.

“My position remains that if the president sends up a nominee ... I believe that hearings are helpful,” she told reporters, though she declined to say whether she pushed that position during the private conference lunch.

Other Republican incumbents — as well as Sen. Roger WickerRoger WickerGOP eager to see Harry Reid go Senate GOP to Obama: Stop issuing new rules Marijuana backers worry over AG Sessions MORE (R-Miss.), who is fighting to retain the majority as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee — voiced confidence that voters will be on their side.

GOP Sens. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonWeek ahead: GOP quickly laying groundwork for reg rollback The Hill's 12:30 Report Passing US-Canada preclearance would improve security and economy MORE (Wis.), John McCainJohn McCainRepublicans tie Trump's Defense pick to funding fight Lawmakers haggle over funding bill as shutdown nears Markos Moulitsas: Kill the filibuster MORE (Ariz.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.), who are all up for reelection, on Tuesday said they support keeping the seat vacant until Obama’s successor is sworn in. 

“Not acting is acting,” Johnson said. 

The president has begun the vetting process to replace Scalia and is said to be a few weeks away from announcing his selection.

All signs point to Obama putting forward a nominee who has been easily confirmed by the Senate in the past. A selection in that mold would play into the hands of Senate Democrats, who are eager to turn the elections into a referendum on the court and what they say is an “obstructionist” Republican majority.

Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidGOP eager to see Harry Reid go Democratic efforts to cling to power at FCC are doomed to fail Lawmakers haggle over funding bill as shutdown nears MORE (D-Nev.) got things rolling on Tuesday, saying that Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck Grassley10 no-brainer ways to cut healthcare costs without hurting quality Senate GOP: National museum should include Clarence Thomas Drug pricing debate going into hibernation MORE (R-Iowa) will “go down in history as the most obstructionist Judiciary chair in the history of this country.”

Grassley is up for reelection this year, though he does not face a serious challenger.

With Republicans holding fast to a blockade of Obama’s nominee, both parties are preparing for a war of words that is likely to rewrite the rulebook for Supreme Court battles.

Seeking ammunition, Republicans have sought to use Vice President Biden’s own words against the White House.

Biden, in a 1992 floor speech in the Senate, argued that if there were to be a Supreme Court vacancy, it should not be filled until after that year’s elections. 

GOP lawmakers have dubbed the speech the “Biden rule,” and they cited it repeatedly Tuesday in their comments.

Sen. Dan CoatsDan CoatsTrump narrows secretary of State field to four finalists 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map 10 Senate seats that could flip in 2018 MORE (R-Ind.), who previously suggested that Obama’s nominee should get a hearing, said Tuesday that “many of us have decided to follow the wise council” of Biden and other top Democrats. 

The vice president issued a statement Monday evening arguing his comments are being taken out of context, and Democrats have made their own attempts to dig up past statements by Republicans that could aid their cause.

Sen. Richard BurrRichard BurrTop Intel Dem: Congress 'far from consensus' on encryption Trump must be an advocate for the Small Business Administration Dems pledge to fight Sessions nomination MORE (R-N.C.), who is also up for reelection, said Republicans are “very” unified for the fight to come, adding that taking up a nominee would set a negative precedent. 

“Why would we see a precedent where future presidents would look at the last term of their presidency and say, ‘I could stack the court by getting members to retire and I load it up with 40-year-olds,’” he said.

Lydia Wheeler contributed.