McConnell: Battle for Senate 'a 50-50 proposition'
McConnell says Trump nominee to replace Ginsburg will get Senate vote
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed Friday night that Republicans will move to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death.
"Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary. Once again, we will keep our promise," McConnell said.
"President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," McConnell added.
McConnell's decision comes roughly an hour after news broke that Ginsburg had died at 87, and before President Trump has weighed in on her passing and if he plans to try to fill the seat this year.
But Republicans close to the White House said they expect Trump to put forth a nominee to fill her seat in the coming days. Trump was holding a rally in Minnesota as news spread of Ginsburg's death, and appeared to be unaware of the news.
A person familiar with discussions added they expect Trump to put forward a nominee and Circuit Judges Amy Coney Barrett and Amul Thapar are among the front-runners. They noted his other nominees were both white men, and there is some added pressure to pick a woman or person of color.
Democrats and progressive outside groups quickly called on Ginsburg's seat to be held open until next year, similar to McConnell's decision to not hold a vote for then-President Obama's final Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Obama nominated Garland after the late Justice Antonin Scalia's death in 2016 but Republicans held it open until 2017 when they confirmed Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first Supreme Court nominee.
"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a tweet, reusing McConnell's exact words from 2016.
Democrats quickly rallied behind Schumer, indicating that they will be unified as they try to block Trump and McConnell from filling the seat.
"Under no circumstances should the Senate consider a replacement for Justice Ginsburg until after the presidential inauguration. Senator McConnell made his position clear in 2016 when he held Justice Scalia's seat vacant for 10 months so he could deny President Obama an appointment - a goal he himself admitted," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Fix Our Senate, a Democratic outside group, quickly announced a six-figure ad buy saying that McConnell "must follow his own rule" and let the next president fill the vacancy. And Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) warned that if Republicans fill the seat, Democrats should nix the legislative filibuster if they win back the majority so they can expand the Supreme Court.
"Mitch McConnell set the precedent. No Supreme Court vacancies filled in an election year. If he violates it, when Democrats control the Senate in the next Congress, we must abolish the filibuster and expand the Supreme Court," he tweeted.
For now McConnell's vow to move whomever Trump nominates sets up a fierce election-year battle. McConnell will need to hold together at least 50 of his 53-member caucus to fill the seat, which would let Vice President Pence cast a tie-breaking vote.
A coalition of several GOP senators made up of moderates, vulnerable incumbents and retiring lawmakers are likely to face intense pressure to refuse to move the president's nominee.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate swing vote within the caucus, sidestepped the issue during her statement on Friday night. But she has previously indicated that she would not support filing an election-year vacancy.
"When Republicans held off Merrick Garland it was because nine months prior to the election was too close, we needed to let people decide. And I agreed to do that. If we now say that months prior to the election is OK when nine months was not, that is a double standard and I don't believe we should do it," Murkowski said earlier this year.
Ginsburg's death came only hours after Murkowski told reporters in Alaska on Friday that she would not support confirming a Supreme Court nominee before the election.
"I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. We are 50 some days away from an election," she said, according to Alaska Public Radio.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also sidestepped the issue during her statement on Friday night. But she told The New York Times earlier this month that she also would not support filling a Supreme Court vacancy in the final weeks before an election, and would oppose filing the seat in the lame duck if the president lost in November.
"I think that's too close, I really do," she said.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) are both also considered senators to watch. Grassley said last month that "In the abstract, I would do the same thing in 2020 that I would in 2016."
Romney has previously declined to say if he would support filling a Supreme Court vacancy and did not address it in his statement on Friday night. But he's been a fierce critic of Trump's and was the only GOP senator to vote for one of the articles of impeachment.
How quickly the Senate could move is uncertain. Senators had been expected to leave town as soon as next week until after the November election, though Ginsburg's passing likely scraps those plans. A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment on Friday night about if the Senate will still hold its pre-October recess.
According to the Congressional Research Service it takes an average of nearly 70 days for a Supreme Court nomination to be confirmed from the time they are nominated. That would put a confirmation vote on Ginsburg's successor, if Republicans move forward, during the end-of-year lame duck session.
Even amid uncertainty about where swing votes would ultimately come down, other Republican senators quickly endorsed filling the seat. Republicans view judicial nominees as a top priority that energizes their base, and have set the second fastest overall confirmation rate of any president during the Trump administration.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is on Trump's list of potential Supreme Court picks, said the spot should be filled before the election.
"I believe that the president should next week nominee a successor to the court, and I think it is critical that the Senate takes up and confirms that successor before Election Day ... this nomination is why Donald Trump was elected," Cruz told Fox News.
Two GOP senators who are facing difficult fights to hold onto their seat in November also quickly endorsed allowing Trump to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.
"This U.S. Senate should vote on President Trump's next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court," Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said in a tweet.
Her decision followed Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), who was the first senator to explicitly call for the seat to be filled this year.
"Our country's future is at stake & @realDonaldTrump has every right to pick a new justice before the election. I look forward to supporting a strict constructionist who will protect the right to life & safeguard our conservative values," she tweeted.
Brett Samuels and Jonathan Easley contributed to this report, which was updated at 10:04 p.m.