Democrats seek to woo winnable GOP senators on Supreme Court

Within an hour of the news breaking about Justice Stephen Breyer’s intention to retire, GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) got a phone call from Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).  

“He called me …  to assure me that he would make the nominee available to me and that he would provide me with any documents or information that I needed,” Collins told The Hill about Durbin’s outreach, which she graded as “terrific.”  

The White House and top Democrats are working to woo GOP senators, like Collins, as they lay the groundwork for the upcoming Supreme Court fight. 

Though Democrats can confirm whomever President Biden nominates without GOP support if they remain unified, it would be the narrowest margin in history for a Supreme Court nominee and only the second, behind Justice Amy Coney Barrett, to be elected entirely by one party. 

White House officials and Democratic senators are hopeful they’ll be able to peel off at least one GOP senator to support the nomination, which would place the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, and are ramping up their outreach to potential swing votes. 

In addition to speaking to Durbin, Collins told The Hill that she also spoke by phone with Biden, whom she previously served with in the Senate for roughly a decade. She also spoke with White House counselor Steve Ricchetti, though their conversation was broader than just the Supreme Court. 

Biden made his lengthy Senate career a deep part of his presidential campaign, and he’s familiar with the Supreme Court process, having previously served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

“Certainly, we expect and are hopeful that Republicans will look seriously at whomever he nominates and at … what they would bring to the court,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. 

The White House didn’t respond to questions about outreach by Biden and the White House counsel’s office to Senate Republicans. Psaki said that Biden would be doing consultations with senators in both parties. 

Biden spoke with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this week, marking a rare phone call between the two former colleagues. Biden also gave McConnell, with whom he cut deals during the Obama era, a shout-out during the National Prayer Breakfast, thanking him for “being my friend” and calling him “a man of your word” and “a man of honor.” 

McConnell is viewed as unlikely to ultimately vote for Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, but he vowed during a stop in Kentucky last week that he would give whomever Biden picks a “fair look.” 

McConnell and his top Senate GOP allies are also working to lower the temperature after heated Supreme Court battles in recent years. They are quietly urging Republicans to avoid personal attacks against a nominee who would be the first Black, female Supreme Court justice and stay focused on issues, like inflation or the coronavirus, that they believe will be more helpful to winning back the Senate majority in the November midterm elections.

Biden hosted Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Durbin in a high-profile visit, characterizing the meeting as bringing “two good friends down here” to the White House. 

In addition to being the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Grassley also ranks forth among Senate Republicans for supporting the most Biden judicial nominees over the past year. 

The White House counsel’s office has also been in touch with GOP senators. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told The Hill that he spoke with the White House about the Supreme Court vacancy as part of a broader call on U.S. attorney and district and circuit court vacancies. 

“I did talk to the White House counsel and just sort of checking in, she said, ‘Any suggestions we had,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s really the president’s prerogative, not mine,’” Cornyn told The Hill. “But I told her that we would do our best to give the president’s nominee a respectful and thorough vetting.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also gave the White House high marks for its outreach to Republican senators, including himself. 

“I want to give them high marks for reaching out. The White House has done a good job of reaching out to Republicans getting input. I’ll give them high marks for that,” Graham said. 

Graham also used the call to lobby for Biden to pick J. Michelle Childs, who is currently a federal district judge in South Carolina. Graham predicted that she would get bipartisan support and warned that supporting other nominees being floated would be a “much more problematic” vote for him. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said that she had also been in contact with the White House, though she declined to say who she spoke with. 

“A little bit of, you know, an open door, if you’ve got any ideas or preferences, welcoming feedback. Just kind of a little bit of an explanation as to how they’re going to be making the nominee available whenever that nominee is out,” Murkowski said about the conversation with the White House. 

Murkowski, Collins and Graham have voted for more of Biden’s judicial nominees than any other Senate Republican. They each also voted for Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who is viewed as the front-runner to succeed Breyer. 

“I recognize that these are not judges that a Republican president would name … but we don’t have a Republican president and the president, it’s his right to send these names forward,” Murkowski said. 

But Murkowski cautioned that a “yes” vote for a lower court position does not mean she would support the same person if nominated for the Supreme Court, noting that there was a “big, big difference” between serving on a district or appeals court and being a justice. 

In addition to talking with the White House, Murkowski, Collins and Grassley have all had Durbin reach out to them.

Durbin said that his message to Grassley, in particular, was that there would be “no surprises” and that he would “would never stab him in the back.” 

“I want to make this a bipartisan vote for the filling of this vacancy,” Durbin said. “I think it is not only good for the Supreme Court. It’s good for the Senate.”

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Chuck Grassley Dick Durbin Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Cornyn Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Mitch McConnell Stephen Breyer Steve Ricchetti Supreme Court Susan Collins
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