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 McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit 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 Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House 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 Grant HatchKoch groups: Don't renew expired tax breaks in government funding bill Hatch tweets link to 'invisible' glasses after getting spotted removing pair that wasn't there DHS giving ‘active defense’ cyber tools to private sector, secretary says 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 KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns 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 Margaret CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals 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 Frederick WickerTrump, GOP make peace after tax win — but will it last? Bipartisan senators: Americans need more security info for internet-connected devices Overnight Defense: House GOP going with plan to include full year of defense spending | American held as enemy combatant also a Saudi citizen | Navy adding oxygen monitors to training jets after issues 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 JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senators eager for Romney to join them The House needs to help patients from being victimized by antiquated technology Comey’s original Clinton memo released, cites possible violations MORE (Wis.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day 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 Mason ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle MORE (D-Nev.) got things rolling on Tuesday, saying that Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP senators eager for Romney to join them Five hurdles to a big DACA and border deal Grand jury indicts Maryland executive in Uranium One deal: report 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 CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump urges House to reauthorize NSA surveillance after ripping it in a tweet Overnight Cybersecurity: Computer chip flaws present new security challenge | DOJ to offer House key documents in Russia probe | Vulnerability found in Google Apps Script Counterterrorism director: Current atmosphere makes job 'more difficult' 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 Mauze BurrNSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Senate Intel chairman: No need for committee to interview Bannon McConnell: Russia probe must stay bipartisan to be credible 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.