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 McConnellSchumer blocks one-week stopgap funding bill Overnight Finance: Dems explore lawsuit against Trump | Full-court press for Trump tax plan | Clock ticks down to spending deadline Hundreds of former EPA employees blast Trump on climate change 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 GrahamTop admiral: North Korea crisis is 'worst I've seen' Comey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee Overnight Defense: US moving missile defense system to South Korea | Dems want justification for Syria strike | Army pick pushes back against critics of LGBT record 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 HatchGinsburg pines for more collegial court confirmations Senate's No. 2 Republican: Border tax 'probably dead' Overnight Finance: Inside Trump's tax plan | White House mulls order pulling out of NAFTA | New fight over Dodd-Frank begins 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 KirkThe way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump ObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood 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 CollinsOvernight Energy: Lawmakers work toward deal on miners’ benefits Schumer: Senate Russia probe moving too slowly Collins: I'm not working with Freedom Caucus chairman on healthcare 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 WickerNet neutrality fight descends into trench warfare Ryan praises FCC chief's plans to roll back net neutrality FCC head unveils plan to roll back net neutrality 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 JohnsonTrump signs executive order creating new VA office Trump tax plan prompts GOP fears about deficit Lawmakers targeted as district politics shift MORE (Wis.), John McCainJohn McCainMeghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Top commander: Don't bet on China reining in North Korea Trudeau, Trump speak for second night about US-Canada trade 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 ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (D-Nev.) got things rolling on Tuesday, saying that Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyComey to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee GOP to kill language exempting staff from new ObamaCare repeal bill House cyber chairman wants to bolster workforce 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 CoatsSouth Korea missile defense online in ‘coming days’ Sanders on skipping WH Korea briefing: 'I did not want to be part of a photo op' Overnight Defense: Senators go to White House for North Korea briefing | Admiral takes 'hit' for aircraft carrier mixup | Lawmakers urged to beef up US missile defense 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 BurrTrump voter who cast ballot illegally won’t be charged Burr: US in new Cold War with Russia Senator: No signs of GOP 'slow-walking' Russia investigation 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.