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Romney backs pre-election Supreme Court vote, paving way for McConnell, Trump

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTwo sheriff's deputies shot by gunman in Utah Romney blasts end of filibuster, expansion of SCOTUS On management of Utah public lands, Biden should pursue an accountable legislative process MORE (R-Utah) signaled on Tuesday that he is open to confirming a Supreme Court nominee this year, solidifying GOP support for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure 100 business executives discuss how to combat new voting rules: report Arkansas governor says 'divisive' Trump attacks on GOP officials are 'unhelpful' MORE's (R-Ky.) vow to hold a vote on President TrumpDonald TrumpGaetz was denied meeting with Trump: CNN Federal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Police in California city declare unlawful assembly amid 'white lives matter' protest MORE's nominee.

“The Constitution gives the President the power to nominate and the Senate the authority to provide advice and consent on Supreme Court nominees. Accordingly, I intend to follow the Constitution and precedent in considering the President’s nominee. If the nominee reaches the Senate floor, I intend to vote based upon their qualifications," Romney said in a statement.

Romney's decision is a blow to Senate Democrats and a boon to McConnell, with both sides watching him closely as a potential swing vote on bringing up whomever Trump nominates to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgProgressives give Biden's court reform panel mixed reviews Biden will let Breyer decide when to retire, aide says Biden establishes commission to study expanding Supreme Court MORE's seat just weeks before a presidential election.

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McConnell has essentially locked down support within his 53-member caucus to move a Supreme Court nominee this year, laying the groundwork for an explosive fight that critics warn could lead to an overhaul of the Senate. McConnell has not said if he will try to move a nomination before or after the election.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSunday shows - Infrastructure dominates GOP senator dismisses Trump-McConnell feud Thune: 'There are Republicans who would vote' for smaller infrastructure package MORE (R-S.D.), McConnell's No. 2, said on Tuesday after Romney's announcement that he personally supports moving Trump's nominee before the election, but the decision on timing will need to be discussed with the caucus during a closed-door lunch later Tuesday

“Speaking for me personally? Yes. I think it would be a good idea for us to move forward. But obviously we have a lot of different members who might have different positions. We’ll get an assessment of that. At least we’re hearing from everybody, everybody wants to move forward," Thune said. 

Thune added that leadership has been talking with members since Friday night.

"I think people are very supportive of the idea of moving forward. In terms of the timing, that’s still up in the air," he said.

With 53 members, Republicans could lose three senators and still let Vice President Pence break a tie on a Supreme Court nomination. If Pence breaks a tie, that would be the first time a vice president has had to weigh in on a Supreme Court pick.

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So far only two GOP senators have said they do not support moving a nomination before the Nov. 3 election: Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start Moderate GOP senators and Biden clash at start of infrastructure debate MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump looms large over GOP donor retreat in Florida Top GOP super PAC endorses Murkowski amid primary threat Biden-GOP infrastructure talks off to rocky start MORE (Alaska).

To stop McConnell successfully, Democrats will need four GOP senators to side against him, an uphill battle given the growing partisanship over the courts, which is a top issue for the Republican base.

And the pool of GOP senators who could side with Democrats on the process argument appears to have closed. Several Republicans considered vulnerable this fall, including Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE (Colo.) and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstTrump faces test of power with early endorsements GOP looks to squeeze Biden, Democrats on border Blackburn introduces bill to require migrant DNA testing at border MORE (Iowa), have signaled they are on board with McConnell's plan, though they've said that they will make a decision on confirmation once Trump nominates a judge.

Republicans have a matter of weeks if they want to confirm Trump’s nominee before the election. The president isn’t expected to name his pick until Saturday, which will be 38 days before Nov. 3. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average number of days from nomination to final Senate vote is 69.6. 

But there are vocal supporters within the caucus of getting Trump’s nominee through the Senate before November, and risks to waiting until the lame-duck session, which would raise new questions if Republicans lose the Senate majority or Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenFederal Reserve chair: Economy would have been 'so much worse' without COVID-19 relief bills Biden to meet Monday with bipartisan lawmakers about infrastructure Jill Biden gives shout out to Champ, Major on National Pet Day MORE wins the White House. 

“I've seen this move before. It's not going to work. ... We've got the votes to confirm Justice Ginsburg's replacement before the election,” Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMSNBC's Joy Reid pans Manchin, Sinema as the 'no progress caucus' Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists Biden defense budget criticized by Republicans, progressives alike MORE (R-S.C.) told Fox News on Monday night.

Romney had been expected to wait until after the closed-door caucus lunch to make his decision ahead of announcing his decision.

But the former governor told reporters on Tuesday morning that he had spoken to a number of his colleagues.

"I recognize that we may have a court that has more of a conservative bent ... but my liberal friends have, over many decades, gotten very used to the idea of having a liberal court and that's not written in the stars," he said.

Romney declined to talk about hypotheticals, including how he would handle a Supreme Court nominee during a lame-duck if Democrats win back the majority in November or if Biden takes the White House.

Democrats have accused Republicans of hypocrisy for being willing to move Trump's forthcoming nominee weeks before the election when they refused to move then-President Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandBudget tasks DOJ with turnaround of policing, voting rights, hate crimes Progressive group ramps up pressure on Justice Breyer to retire The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings MORE, months before the 2016 election.

Republicans have argued, and Romney appeared to agree on Tuesday, that the difference between divided government between the Senate and White House in 2016 and unified control of the Senate and the White House in 2020 is a key distinction.

“My decision regarding a Supreme Court nomination is not the result of a subjective test of ‘fairness’ which, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is based on the immutable fairness of following the law, which in this case is the Constitution and precedent. The historical precedent of election year nominations is that the Senate generally does not confirm an opposing party’s nominee but does confirm a nominee of its own," Romney said in his statement.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerNY Times beclowns itself by normalizing court-packing 'to balance the conservative majority' The first Southern state legalizes marijuana — what it means nationally H.R. 1/S. 1: Democrats defend their majorities, not honest elections MORE (D-N.Y.) ripped into Republicans and Trump from the Senate on floor on Tuesday, arguing that they were violating the “McConnell rule,” after refusing to give Garland a hearing or a vote.

"Leader McConnell has defiled the Senate like no one in this generation, and Leader McConnell may very well destroy it,” Schumer said. 

Updated at 10:56 a.m.