GOP fractured over filling Supreme Court vacancies in 2020

Early lines of division are opening up among top Senate Republicans over a potential 2020 Supreme Court fight.

Days after the Senate confirmed Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughRosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Chief Justice Roberts wisely defers to California governor in church challenge  Supreme Court rules immigrants who fear torture can appeal deportations in court MORE to the court, key GOP lawmakers are giving different answers over whether they’d fill a Supreme Court seat if there is an opening in 2020, the next presidential election year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes bill to give flexibility for small business coronavirus aid program On The Money: GOP turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks | Millions of Americans frustrated by delayed unemployment checks | Senate votes to give coronavirus relief program more flexibility Rand Paul holding up quick passage of anti-lynching bill MORE (R-Ky.) refused to rule out taking up a nomination in 2020, even though Republicans blocked Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandDon't mess with the Supreme Court Graham on potential Supreme Court vacancy: 'This would be a different circumstance' than Merrick Garland Prosecutor who resigned over Stone sentencing memo joins DC attorney general's office MORE, former President Obama’s nominee, from getting a hearing or a vote in the presidential election year of 2016.

ADVERTISEMENT

McConnell, suggesting 2020 could be different, pointed out that at the time the Senate and White House were controlled by different parties.

“You have to go back to 1880s to find the last time a Senate controlled by a party different from the president filled a vacancy on the Supreme Court that was created in the middle of a presidential election year,” McConnell said on Fox News. “That's been the history.”

Asked directly if he would allow a nominee to be confirmed in 2020, McConnell sidestepped the question, saying senators would wait and “see if there's a vacancy.”

He reiterated his point to reporters in Louisville, Ky., on Monday and during an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that was streamed live on Facebook.

Two other Republicans took starkly different views from McConnell.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care: Hydroxychloroquine ineffective in preventing COVID-19, study finds | WHO to resume hydroxychloroquine clinical research | WHO says no evidence coronavirus is mutating Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Bipartisan lawmakers press Trump administration to get COVID-19 aid to Medicaid providers MORE (R-Iowa), fresh off the brutal Kavanaugh fight, told Fox News that if he is still committee chairman and there is a Supreme Court opening in 2020, the panel “won’t take it up.”

“Because I pledged that in 2016,” Grassley told Fox News’s Martha MacCallum. “That's a decision I made a long time ago.”

Grassley hasn’t said if he will remain chairman of the Judiciary Committee next year if Republicans keep control of the Senate. He could take over the Finance Committee, where current chairman Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchBottom line Bottom line Bottom line MORE (R-Utah) is retiring after 2018.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse Judiciary Committee to hold hearing on police brutality next week McCabe, Rosenstein spar over Russia probe Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony MORE (R-S.C.), who attacked Judiciary Democrats with vitriol during Kavanaugh’s final hearing, also said he would support putting off a Supreme Court confirmation if an opening occurs during the presidential primary season.

“If an opening comes in the last year of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFormer employees critique EPA under Trump in new report Fired State Department watchdog says Pompeo aide attempted to 'bully' him over investigations Virginia senator calls for Barr to resign over order to clear protests MORE’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait until the next election,” Graham, who would be in line to serve as Judiciary’s chairman if Grassley steps aside and the GOP keeps its majority, said at a festival hosted by The Atlantic.

Graham reiterated to CNN on Tuesday that he would be “inclined,” once the 2020 primary season starts, to delay a Supreme Court nominee until the next president takes office.

A 2016 analysis of Supreme Court confirmations done by Josh Blackman, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, found that eight justices had been confirmed in a presidential election year from a vacancy that opened up during that same year, the last occurring in 1932.

Only two were confirmed by a Senate controlled by an opposing political party from the president, the last taking place in 1888 when a Republican Senate confirmed Melville Fuller, who was nominated by Democratic President Cleveland.

Graham and Grassley would likely face intense pressure from McConnell and other conservatives to fill an opening to the court in 2020 if there is one. The conservative movement sees the appointments made by Trump and a GOP-controlled Senate as one of its greatest victories.

With the confirmations of Trump nominees Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, conservatives believe they have shifted the high court to the right, potentially for decades to come.

Given the fact that three Supreme Court justices are at least 70 years old, it’s entirely possible Trump could get a chance at a third nomination. Axios reported last year that Trump privately predicted he would be able to make four appointments to the court.

Hatch sided with McConnell in the internal GOP debate, saying he believed Republicans would have to fill a vacancy, even if it occurred during the presidential election year.

“I think we have to if we can. I’m for moving ahead no matter what,” Hatch said.

Asked if it would appear “hypocritical” for Republicans to take up a nominee from Trump after they refused to move Garland’s nomination, Hatch said, “People would try to make that point but I’m not sure it works.”  

Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Facebook employees speak up against content decisions | Trump's social media executive order on weak legal ground | Order divides conservatives The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump tweets as tensions escalate across US GOP deeply divided over Trump's social media crackdown MORE (R-Utah) told Fox News Radio that the Constitution didn’t forbid them from confirming a Supreme Court nominee during an election year.

“I agree with Mitch McConnell's statement that this was a circumstance in which you had a Senate controlled by one party and a White House controlled by the other party. There's nothing written into the Constitution about that,” said Lee, a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiBlumenthal to introduce legislation to limit Trump's power under Insurrection Act Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress GOP senators dodge on treatment of White House protesters MORE (R-Alaska), the only Republican to oppose Kavanaugh, began shaking her head when asked about a potential 2020 Supreme Court fight. She added that she didn’t know how to respond and that it was a “weird question.”

GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeKelly holds double-digit lead over McSally in Arizona: poll Trump asserts his power over Republicans 'Never Trump' Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with? MORE (Ariz.), who is retiring after 2018, joked that he would leave the decision up to his colleagues. And Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn presses DOJ to release results of investigation into Larry Nassar probe Minority caucuses call for quick action on police reform 7 GOP senators slam State Dept for 'slow and inefficient policy' on passports MORE (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, quipped: “Did somebody retire?”

“[McConnell] didn’t speak to what would happen if they were the same party. But, obviously we don’t have a Supreme Court nomination, so I’m not going to speculate or answer a hypothetical. ... When there’s a vacancy I would be happy to talk,” he said.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits | House Republicans introduce bill to speed mining projects for critical minerals | Watchdog faults EPA communications in contamination of NC river Trump administration gives renewables more time to take advantage of tax credits Tillis campaign releases first general election TV ad emphasizing 'humble' roots MORE (R-N.C.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, added that questions about a potential 2020 vacancy were “hypothetical” but indicated senators should give weight to Graham and Grassley’s positions.

“I’ve heard from the current chair and the member who would be chair that they wouldn’t take it up,” Tillis said, referring to Grassley and Graham. “If we’re really trying to restore some of the integrity of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I think there is something to be said to listening to … the chair and the potential chair.”

Democrats, for their part, aren’t surprised that McConnell might have a change in heart if the opportunity arises to appoint a justice in 2020.

“He’s prepared to break or change any rule, even those that he swore he would uphold, if it means getting another Republican on the federal court,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats aim to amend Graham subpoena to include Trump allies Rosenstein steps back into GOP crosshairs Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  MORE (D-Ill.).  

With a laugh, he said that he was “not at all surprised” by McConnell’s rhetoric.