Republicans rebuff Obama in meeting on SCOTUS nomination

Senate Republican leaders visiting the White House on Tuesday told President Obama in blunt terms that there’s no chance his Supreme Court nominee will receive hearings this year. 

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Obama what he’s been telling reporters and constituents: that the next occupant of the Oval Office should be the one to fill the court vacancy.

{mosads}“I told the president what I’ve been saying for close to two weeks now,” McConnell said.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also attended the meeting, as did Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Vice President Biden, who helmed the Judiciary panel during his Senate career. 

The meeting was brief, providing another sign that neither side is backing down in the partisan battle over replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia.  

“We killed a lot of time talking about basketball,” Reid said.

The White House and Senate Democrats have ratcheted up the pressure on Grassley in recent days in hopes that he might be shamed into holding hearings. The Iowa senator controls the committee that oversees Supreme Court nominations.

But Grassley indicated he’s not going to budge. Instead, he offered a constitutional defense of the Senate’s decision to postpone the matter until 2017.

“I said this is more basic than just the stuff we’ve been talking about. You have a certain view of the role of government. We have a different view of the role of government,” Grassley said, paraphrasing the conversation. 

Grassley argued that Obama’s aggressive use of executive authority makes it virtually impossible for Republicans to put another one of the president’s nominees on the court, likely tipping its ideological balance.

“You believe you’ve got a pen and a phone and you can do certain things Congress won’t, and you’re looking for the court to back you up, and we just don’t agree with that,” he said.

Reid had a blunter take.

“They were adamant. They said, ‘No, we’re not going to do this at all,’ ” Reid told reporters on the West Wing driveway.

“All we want them to do is to fulfill their constitutional duty, and at this stage, they are deciding not to do that,” he added. “They’re going to wait and see what President Trump will do, I guess, as far as a nomination.”

Tuesday’s sit-down discussion was the first in-person meeting among the leaders since Scalia’s death last month.  

The meeting lasted 35 to 40 minutes, according to Grassley. About half of it was devoted to the Supreme Court vacancy. The leaders also discussed criminal sentencing reform legislation, Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis and a bill now on the Senate floor intended to combat opioid abuse. 

Before he traveled along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, McConnell told House Republicans at their weekly meeting that he’s standing by his promise not to hold hearing or votes on an Obama nominee.

Scalia was the leading conservative voice on the bench, and an Obama replacement could give liberals a five-vote majority.

The president “made it very clear” in Tuesday’s meeting that he would consider any nominees recommended by McConnell and Grassley, according to Reid. But the GOP leaders did not offer up a list of names.

Asked what leverage Democrats have to force a vote, Reid suggested they would continue to shame Republicans over their stance.  

“We have that nasty little Constitution, which says they are obligated to hold hearings and they are obligated to vote,” he said. “They swore to uphold the Constitution. They’re not doing that. They are walking away from that.” 

Reid added that Obama’s nominee “should be coming very quickly.” 

The Democratic leader last week attacked Grassley, saying he would be remembered as the most obstructionist Judiciary Committee chairman in history.

When Grassley in turn accused Reid of throwing “childish tantrums,” Democrats pointed to that as evidence he was “feeling the heat.”

But Grassley on Tuesday said the impasse over the court pales next to other controversies he’s weathered during his 35-year Senate career.

“It just goes with the turf,” he said. “When you talk about heat, this is nothing compared to when you’re only one of two Republicans to vote against the Persian Gulf War.”

Grassley said he also felt more heat from Democrats when Republicans were contemplating scrapping filibusters for judicial nominees in 2005. Democrats later did it themselves by invoking a controversial procedural tactic known as the nuclear option.

Even as the court standoff persists, Obama is continuing to comb through materials about potential nominees. Senior adviser Brian Deese was tapped to lead the selection process on Monday, alongside White House counsel Neil Eggleston.

The White House is working to show that it’s taking a serious and deliberate approach to picking a nominee, an effort to contrast with Republicans’ quick decision to block Obama. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest indicated Obama did not expect the meeting Tuesday to change anyone’s mind.

“The meeting was pretty straightforward,” he said. “No one represented that he was about to change his position.” 

But he stressed that Obama believes it’s his “responsibility to consult intensively with Congress before making a lifetime nomination to the Supreme Court.” 

“The president felt it was important, even in an election year, to continue that consultation.”

Republicans, however, have been quick to note past comments and actions by the vice president and other Democrats that they say show there’s precedent for their decision.

GOP leaders have frequently cited a 1992 floor speech by Biden, who said then-President George H.W. Bush should wait until after the fall elections to put forth a hypothetical nominee.

“We will reiterate that the American people will have a voice in the vacancy on the Supreme Court as they choose the next president, who in turn will nominate the next Supreme Court justice,” McConnell said early Tuesday on the Senate floor. “We will observe the ‘Biden Rule.’ ” 

Obama and his allies are hopeful that Senate Republicans will back off their stance under pressure from politically vulnerable senators who are facing scrutiny at home.

Grassley himself faces reelection in November and is expected to cruise to victory. But former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D) announced last week she is considering challenging the longtime senator, a sign his Supreme Court stance could cause political difficulties in his home state.

That argument could be amplified if Donald Trump emerges as the Republican Party’s likely presidential nominee after the Super Tuesday contests. 

“Kind of amusing, the GOP is making their vulnerable incumbent senators walk a plank on SCOTUS in the hope that Trump might get to pick,” tweeted former Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer.

— Updated at 5:29 p.m.

Tags Chuck Grassley Donald Trump Harry Reid Mitch McConnell Patrick Leahy

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