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 HolderThey forgot that under Trump, there are two sets of rules NAACP to honor John Lewis Trump is flooding the swamp that Obama drained 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 GreenPresident Trump's Iran strategy is working Trump says he will 'temporarily hold off' on declaring Mexican drug cartels as terror organization Trump says he will designate Mexican drug cartels as terror organizations MORE (R-Tenn.) filed a bill on Thursday to lock in the current number of justices and urged Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report - Sanders on the rise as Nevada debate looms Lawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Malaysia says it will choose 5G partners based on own standards, not US recommendations MORE (D-Calif.) to support his effort. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPeace Corps' sudden decision to leave China stirs blowback Lawmakers raise concerns over Russia's growing influence in Venezuela USDA takes heat as Democrats seek probe into trade aid 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 McConnellErnst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Trump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request 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 KavanaughA disgraced Senate and president have no business confirming judges Manchin not ruling out endorsing Trump reelection Impeachment fallout threatens to upend battle for Senate 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 GarlandMitch McConnell may win the impeachment and lose the Senate The Trumpification of the federal courts Juan Williams: GOP are hypocrites on impeachment 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 Ann WarrenWarren: Bloomberg making debate will show how other candidates handle 'an egomaniac billionaire' Klobuchar campaign gets first super PAC HuffPost reporter: Sanders could win plurality of delegates but lose nomination MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersBloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Warren: Bloomberg making debate will show how other candidates handle 'an egomaniac billionaire' HuffPost reporter: Sanders could win plurality of delegates but lose nomination 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 AlexanderDemocrats worried about Trump's growing strength The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Defense: Senate votes to rein in Trump war powers on Iran | Pentagon shifting .8B to border wall | US, Taliban negotiate seven-day 'reduction in violence' 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 TrumpCensus Bureau spends millions on ad campaign to mitigate fears on excluded citizenship question Bloomberg campaign: Primary is two-way race with Sanders Democratic senator meets with Iranian foreign minister MORE to have 15 justices?’ ”