McConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight

Republican senators are coalescing behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) vow to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

A number of GOP senators, including both retiring members and vulnerable incumbents, are backing McConnell’s promise to hold a vote on whomever President Trump nominates, underscoring Republicans’ desire to fill the seat even as they face charges of hypocrisy from Democrats and pushback from some of their own colleagues. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of the year, said on Sunday that he would support filling the seat this year, though he’ll make a decision on the nominee once Trump names his pick.  

“No one should be surprised that a Republican Senate majority would vote on a Republican President’s Supreme Court nomination, even during a presidential election year. … Senator McConnell is only doing what Democrat leaders have said they would do if the shoe were on the other foot,” Alexander said in a statement. 

Alexander’s decision follows similar remarks from Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who both indicated they would support McConnell if he moves to hold a vote on confirming a third Supreme Court pick for Trump. Neither is up for reelection this year.

Portman, in a statement, noted that McConnell intended to hold a vote and that “I intend to fulfill my role as a U.S. Senator and judge that nominee based on his or her merits.” Blunt, a member of GOP leadership, added to CBS’s “Face the Nation” that there was “plenty of time” for Republicans to confirm a nominee this year. 

“The White House and the Senate have some obligation to do what they think in the majority in the Senate is the right thing to do. And there is a Senate majority put there by voters for reasons like this,” he said. 

The decision by Portman, Blunt and Alexander to align with McConnell and Trump highlights the narrowing pool of GOP senators Democrats could flip in order to block Republicans from filling the seat in the middle of an election year. 

Republicans still face a decision on whether they should try to squeeze in the nomination before the election day or in the end-of-year lame-duck session, something that is likely to be discussed at a leadership meeting on Monday night and a caucus lunch on Tuesday.  

“I’m for whatever gives us the best opportunity to confirm a conservative to the court while giving us the best chance of keeping the Senate and White House,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told The Hill on Saturday. “[But] I suspect we will have a long discussion about it Tuesday.”  

So far, two GOP senators — Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the only GOP senator to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, and Susan Collins (Maine), who is facing a tough reelection bid — have said they do not believe the Senate should take up the Supreme Court nomination before the Nov. 3 election, which is 44 days away. 

“I did not support taking up a nomination eight months before the 2016 election to fill the vacancy created by the passing of Justice Scalia. We are now even closer to the 2020 election – less than two months out – and I believe the same standard must apply,” Murkowski said on Sunday. 

Collins, in a statement on Saturday, said the appointment “should be made by the President who is elected on November 3rd.” 

But Democrats will need at least two more GOP senators to oppose moving a Supreme Court nominee before the election to give them a fighting chance of keeping the seat open until next year. 

Alexander and Portman, in particular, were considered potential votes to watch. Alexander, though a McConnell ally, is considered an institutionalist and is retiring, freeing him from the guaranteed political blowback that would come from Trump and his supporters for wanting to delay a Supreme Court vote. Portman, meanwhile, has had breaks with Trump over high-profile issues including the emergency declaration for the border wall. 

Their decisions don’t close the door for Democrats altogether, but they underscore the uphill battle Democrats are likely to face.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, is considered another lawmaker to watch. He is one of the president’s most vocal critics within the caucus and is viewed as a potential swing vote. He was the only GOP senator to vote for one of the articles of impeachment earlier this year.  

But even if Romney comes out in support of not holding a vote before the election, Democrats still would need to pick up one additional GOP senator to prevent a 50-50 tie that Vice President Pence would be all but guaranteed to break. 

In addition to Romney, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) are both considered votes to watch. 

Grassley, a current member and the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said earlier this year that “in the abstract, I would do the same thing in 2020 that I would in 2016” if a Supreme Court vacancy occurred this year. His statement released in the wake of Ginsburg’s death did not address what the Senate should do if Trump nominates someone to fill her seat. 

Gardner also did not address what the Senate should do. He declined to say, when questioned while speaking before a business group on Saturday, if he stood by his 2016 comments that whoever won the 2016 election should appoint the successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat. 

Gardner’s sidestepping comes as several other vulnerable GOP incumbents have endorsed holding a vote this year, further reducing the pool of swing votes for Democrats. 

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who is running for a second term, said on Sunday that the Senate should act on the nomination, painting the Supreme Court battle as a central difference between himself and Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff.

“Once the President announces a nomination, the United States Senate should begin the process that moves this to a full Senate vote,” Perdue said.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who is running against Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), added in his own statement that the Senate “should move forward with confirming President Trump’s nominee.” 

Perdue and Daines join GOP Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are all on the ballot in November and have called for the Senate to act on Trump’s forthcoming nomination. 

Graham, in a tweet linking to his campaign fundraising page, said he was “dead set” on confirming whomever Trump picks. 

“I will support President @realDonaldTrump in any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy created by the passing of Justice Ginsburg,” he added in a separate tweet.

Scott Wong contributed to this report.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Chuck Grassley Cory Gardner Donald Trump Kelly Loeffler Lamar Alexander Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Martha McSally Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Rob Portman Roy Blunt Ruth Bader Ginsburg Steve Bullock Steve Daines Susan Collins Thom Tillis

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