GOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight

GOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight
© Greg Nash

Republicans are seizing on the Democratic fight over expanding the Supreme Court as they look for leverage in the 2020 White House fight.

The intraparty debate is seen by Republicans as a political gift that could pay dividends after several presidential candidates signaled they are open to adding justices to the bench or imposing term limits.

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GOP strategists and conservative activists say the progressive push to expand the Supreme Court fits nicely into the broader Republican narrative about Democrats swinging too far to the left. And it’s an issue they view as a political boon.

Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and policy director for the Judicial Crisis Network, said Democrats are “desperate” and “chasing each other off a cliff to the left” by debating the issue of expanding the Supreme Court.

“In many ways, I think this is something that is going to turn off so many voters because it is so baldly political that maybe one option is to … give them enough rope and let them hang themselves,” she said when asked how Republicans should respond.

Long considered a fringe idea, reforming the nation’s highest court has vaulted into the spotlight with the backing of progressive outside groups and high-profile leaders like former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderTrump official criticizes ex-Clinton spokesman over defunding police tweet Obama to speak about George Floyd in virtual town hall GOP group launches redistricting site MORE, who served during the Obama administration.

GOP lawmakers are quickly moving to weaponize the fight by introducing legislation that would force Democrats to go on the record on a constitutional amendment to keep the number of Supreme Court justices at nine.

Adam Brandon, the president of FreedomWorks, said Republicans should “absolutely” try to force a vote as they look for leverage against Democrats heading toward next year’s election.

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“They’re just handing us ammunition to prove our point,” he said. “It’s a long way to 2020 but these votes that are going to get cast, they are going to matter in this upcoming election.”

Republicans are expected to introduce at least two pieces of legislation on the issue. Rep. Mark GreenMark GreenComer tapped to serve as top Republican on House Oversight Clyburn pledges not to recognize committee members who don't wear masks This week: Democrats set to move health care, infrastructure proposals with eye on November MORE (R-Tenn.) filed a bill on Thursday to lock in the current number of justices and urged Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSupreme Court expands religious rights with trio of rulings Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits Democrats see victory in Trump culture war MORE (D-Calif.) to support his effort. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad GOP Miami mayor does not commit to voting for Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump wants schools to reopen, challenged on 'harmless' COVID-19 remark MORE (R-Fla.) will introduce a similar measure as soon as next week, according to a spokesman.

Enacting a constitutional amendment would be an uphill battle, if not an impossible goal. The amendment would first need to win over two-thirds of both chambers of Congress, and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

An amendment is likely to go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled House. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad State and local officials beg Congress to send more election funds ahead of November Teacher's union puts million behind ad demanding funding for schools preparing to reopen MORE (R-Ky.) hasn't weighed in on the current Supreme Court fight, or the prospect that he would bring legislation on the issue up for a vote. He previously dismissed talk of expanding the courts as Democrats “scrounging through the ash-heap of American history” for their ideas.

But McConnell has been willing to use floor votes to try to drive a wedge between Democratic lawmakers and their progressive base ahead of 2020, including forcing a vote next week on the Green New Deal.

“McConnell is very savvy about these sorts of things and he knows … that he wants to have all this stuff documented before Democrats have a nominee,” said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist.

O'Connell added that forcing Democratic senators to vote on a constitutional amendment, even though it has little chance of being enacted, would allow Republicans to help define the Democratic Party before they are able to unite behind a 2020 strategy.

“A lot of this stuff that is being thrown around the Democratic primary, the Republicans want to capture now regardless of who the nominee is because the nominee will then try to pivot, duck, dodge and dive this stuff,” he said. “If Trump and the Republicans can define the Democrats before the Democrats have a nominee that’s how they’re going to win this race.”

With control of both the White House and the Senate, Republicans view the courts as a top priority and one of their best shots at having a long-term impact on the direction of the country.

GOP senators have credited McConnell’s decision to keep the late Antonin Scalia’s seat open until 2017 as crucial to them holding on to the Senate majority during the 2016 election despite a difficult map. And fighting sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughSupreme Court sides with religious schools in discrimination suits Romney, Collins, Murkowski won't attend GOP convention Susan Collins signals she won't campaign against Biden MORE, which threatened to derail his confirmation at the eleventh hour, provided a last-minute shot in the arm to Republicans who made the fight an issue in their 2018 Senate campaigns. Kavanaugh denied the accusations against him.

“This is just one that’s going to cut through and it will be a lot easier for us to message on,” Brandon said. “I know plenty of people who couldn’t stand Donald Trump and didn’t support him, but voted for him because of the court.”

Democrats have increasingly dug in on the courts during Trump’s presidency, with nominations emerging as a lightning rod for the party’s progressive base. Supporters of expanding the Supreme Court argue that it’s needed after Trump and Republicans “packed” the courts with two justices and dozens of influential appeals court nominees.

The frustration for Democrats stems from McConnell’s refusal to give Judge Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandMellman: Roberts rescues the right? McConnell easily wins Kentucky Senate primary Don't mess with the Supreme Court MORE, former President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, a Senate confirmation hearing or a vote. But they’ve also grown alarmed over Republicans' decisions to move appeals court judges over the objection of Democratic home-state senators.

Republicans hope that forcing a vote on the Supreme Court issue could allow them to highlight divisions among Senate Democrats. The caucus includes progressives like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic Unity Taskforce unveils party platform recommendations Progressive activist Ady Barkan endorses Biden, urges him to pick Warren as VP Congress must act now to fix a Social Security COVID-19 glitch and expand, not cut, benefits MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersTammy Duckworth is the epitome of the American Dream On The Money: Deficit rises to record .7 trillion amid pandemic: CBO | Democrats sidestep budget deal by seeking 0B in emergency spending | House panel advances spending bill with funding boost to IRS Biden-Sanders unity task force calls for Fed, US Postal Service consumer banking MORE (I-Vt.) and more moderate senators like Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who is considered the most vulnerable senator up for election next year.

GOP Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderCoronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Randi Weingarten China lashes out at US over WHO withdrawal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE (Tenn.), an institutionalist who is retiring in early 2021, predicted that some of his Democratic colleagues would oppose efforts to expand the Supreme Court.

“This should be resisted,” he said during an interview with Fox News Radio. “Some Democrats can look at it and say, ‘Wait a minute, would we want President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE to have 15 justices?’ ”