Dems in terrible bind on Kavanaugh nomination
Senate Democrats are in a terrible bind as they search for a strategy to block Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is expected to determine the ideological balance of the court for decades.
Leadership is faced with the challenge of catering to two factions in the party. On one side, red-state Democrats who are worried that opposing Kavanaugh could imperil their reelection chances in November, and with it the party’s hope of winning the majority in the Senate.
On the other, a progressive base that is demanding Democrats engage in a full-on attack, since they see President Trump’s pick as a serious threat to liberal values.
The balancing act will soon play out when Democrats decide what strategy and tactics to employ.
Senate Democratic leaders this week appeared to try to tamp down expectations of the party’s progressive base, with Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) saying the procedural options for Democrats “are not that large.”
“There is no way we can prevent the Senate from meeting. There’s been some discussion about that, but it just wouldn’t happen,” Schumer told reporters during a weekly press conference when asked about the possibility of actions like boycotting a confirmation hearing.
Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, added that he has been approached by constituents who have unrealistic expectations about what Democrats can do.
“Some of the things that have been in blogs and suggested do not even understand the basics of the Senate,” he said. “Some of the people who have come up to me at parades and said, ‘Shut ‘em down, do this, do that,’ it reflects a limited understanding of how the Senate operates.”
Democrats have largely stayed mum on how far they would be willing to go to slow-walk Kavanaugh as he moves through the confirmation process. Instead, they’ve focused this week on requesting sufficient time to review Kavanaugh’s long paper trail.
Democrats can’t block the nomination on their own; Republicans nixed the 60-vote filibuster for Supreme Court nominations last year.
But the Senate’s rulebook allows them to temporarily delay Kavanaugh’s nomination in committee or limit the ability for committees to meet, a move that would gridlock the Senate’s work and appease some on the left.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, expects Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing to begin after Labor Day, with Republicans hoping to get him on the bench before the Supreme Court’s next term begins, in early October.
Democrats are under enormous pressure to try to block Kavanaugh by all available means, with outside group saying Schumer must keep the caucus united.
Durbin on Wednesday wouldn’t rule out that Democrats could ultimately use the chamber’s rulebook to try to slow things down.
“We’re taking a careful look at every suggestion and we’re going to use what we consider the appropriate procedures,” he said.
While there is a pressure from the left to play hardball to try to gum up the Senate, and even punish Democratic senators who support Kavanaugh, such tactics could backfire for the 10 red-state Democrats facing reelection in states Trump won in 2016.
GOP Senate candidates are eager to make the Supreme Court fight, which they expect to fire up their base, a focal point in the battle for the chamber, and in doing so paint Democrats as obstructionists.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is seeking reelection, declined to discuss using procedural tactics, saying he was focused on vetting Kavanaugh.
“At this moment in time we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, which is gathering information and going from there,” he said.
Other red-state Democrats have also shown little interest in slowing down Kavanaugh’s nomination, noting that they disagreed with how Republicans in 2016 blocked consideration of Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I thought how it’s been handled previously, with no decorum and no civility, was wrong,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) recently told reporters, when asked about the possibility of delaying Kavanaugh’s nomination until after the November midterm elections.
Democratic challengers in red states also seem unwilling to back the use of stalling tactics. Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee, called for Kavanaugh to be given a “fair and timely confirmation hearing.”
Leadership is facing additional pressure from liberal groups that want party leaders to “whip the vote” and make sure the 49 members in the caucus remain united, to increase their odds of success.
In addition to Manchin, Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) voted for now-Justice Neil Gorsuch — Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee — and have said they are keeping an open mind about Kavanaugh.
Elizabeth Beavers, policy director for the liberal Indivisible Project, said if there was a “meaningful way” for Democrats to “slow things” for Kavanaugh, then “they should always do that.”
But, she added, the group was more focused on Schumer and trying to get all Democrats to come out quickly in opposition to Kavanaugh.
“It’s literally the minority leader’s job to try to keep party members in line,” Beavers said.
Heidi Hess, co-director of the progressive group Credo Action, suggested Schumer should punish senators who vote for Kavanaugh by removing them for leadership posts. Manchin is a member of Schumer’s leadership team.
“It doesn’t make sense that he would have somebody in his leadership team that would vote for Kavanaugh,” Hess said
Democrats have long argued that it’s unrealistic to think leadership can pressure members into voting a certain way, and it isn’t Schumer’s style to twist the arms of his vulnerable incumbents.
But, Hess said, “If he’s a leader who’s not going to do that, then we need a different leader.”
Senate Democrats acknowledged that voters in their party are frustrated, but Democrats are trying to keep the focus on Kavanaugh and Republicans.
In this week’s first wave of press conferences, the focus was on the potential impact Kavanaugh could have on health care, an issue they think could unite the party and maybe even win over GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who both voted against an effort by Republicans last year to repeal ObamaCare.
But getting support from other GOP senators is unlikely, despite the aspirations of some Democratic voters. Every Republican senator voted for Gorsuch last year.
When asked about what kind of feedback he’s gotten from party constituents on Kavanaugh’s nomination, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said, “I think they want us to mount a national campaign to try to convince Republicans to vote against this guy.”