This week: Senate Republicans strategize over Supreme Court

Greg Nash

Senate Republicans will get their first chance to huddle as a caucus this week and strategize about how to handle the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. 

Since Scalia’s passing on Feb. 13, Republicans have struggled to nail down a singular message with lawmakers scattered across the country for the week-long Presidents Day recess. 

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement shortly after Scalia’s death that the “American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”  

{mosads}A handful of Senate Republicans initially broke ranks suggesting they would be open to giving Obama’s nominee a hearing depending on whom the president picks. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is running for reelection, suggested that she thought Obama’s nominee deserved a hearing, but then backtracked saying late last week that Obama should “follow a tradition embraced by both parties and allow his successor to select the next Supreme Court justice.”

In addition to the weekly policy conference on Tuesday, which involves the entire GOP caucus, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is expected to meet with colleagues, including Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, to discuss the vacancy.

Democrats are already criticizing McConnell’s strategy of waiting for the next president, suggesting Republicans are playing politics by leaving the Court seat empty for approximately a year. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said late last week that the president would likely nominate someone in about three weeks and a “very superior” candidate will force Republicans to hold hearings and an eventual floor vote. 

Democrats are also pointing to two polls released late last week that show that a majority of Americans back allowing Obama to nominate Scalia’s replacement, saying they underscore that Republicans have “bet the farm on the least-defensible option available to them.” 

Sportsmen’s bill

The House is expected to consider legislation this week to expand access to recreational shooting, hunting and fishing on federal lands, more than a month after President Obama’s executive actions on gun control.

Among other provisions, the measure would increase funding that states can use for developing public target ranges on federal lands. It would also allow people to possess firearms at water resources development projects.

The measure has some bipartisan support. Rep. Robert Wittman (R-Va.), the co-chair of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, introduced the bill with Democratic Reps. Tim Walz (Minn.) and Gene Green (Texas).

The House passed a similar measure in the last session of Congress, with 41 Democrats crossing party lines to support it. Another version of the bill stalled in the Senate around the same time due to a disagreement over amendments. 

FDA nominee

The Senate will vote this week on President Obama’s nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration despite bipartisan pushback. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set up a procedural vote on Robert Califf’s nomination to be FDA commissioner for Monday at 5:30 p.m. Sixty votes will be needed to overcome Monday’s hurdle. 

Under Senate rules, after Monday’s vote lawmakers can debate the nomination for up to 30 hours. A final vote is expected Tuesday. 

Both Republicans and Democrats have vowed to oppose his nomination over questions about his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA’s response to the opioid epidemic. 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said despite McConnell’s decision to move forward with Califf’s confirmation that he would use the “nomination as the means by which we can have a debate” on prescription drug and heroin abuse. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have also raised concerns about Califf.

Califf, who joined the FDA as a deputy commissioner in February 2015, announced a sweeping plan earlier this month aimed at tackling substance abuse. Both Markey and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) suggested the agency’s announcement doesn’t go far enough.

The Centers for Disease Control says that deaths from prescription drugs and heroin overdoses reached an all-time high in 2014. 


House GOP leaders have been aiming for a committee markup on their fiscal 2017 budget to take place during the last week of February with a floor vote in early March. But as of Monday, no markup has been scheduled this week and Republicans are still divided on the path forward.

The House GOP conference is expected to huddle Wednesday morning for the first time following last week’s recess. Conservatives remain adamant that Republicans should adopt a budget at lower spending levels, while appropriators want to adhere to last year’s budget deal so that lawmakers can move forward quickly on individual spending bills.

At the last House GOP meeting before the recess, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) suggested that Republicans could even opt not to pass a budget resolution this year.

GOP leaders in both chambers say they want to pass all 12 individual spending bills – which Congress hasn’t done since the 1990s – this year to avoid a repeat of last year’s catch-all omnibus package. But the prospect is fading for achieving that goal given the current divisions and truncated election-year schedule.

Tags Bernie Sanders Chuck Grassley Ed Markey Gene Green Harry Reid Joe Manchin Kelly Ayotte Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan

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