Senate GOP: No Hearings, Vote on Any High Court Nominee

Senate GOP: No Hearings, Vote on Any High Court Nominee
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Senate Republicans are nearly unanimous in their plan to take no action on President Obama’s yet-unnamed nominee to the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, party leaders reiterated they will not confirm any nominee, which means neither a vote nor any confirmation hearings. Additionally, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and several other GOP senators said they wouldn’t even take a one-on-one meeting with whomever Obama names.

In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, McConnell called on Obama to reconsider nominating a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this month, and to “let the people decide” rather than making the nomination “just another campaign roadshow.”

“He has every right to nominate someone,” McConnell said. “Even if doing so will inevitably plunge our nation into another bitter and avoidable struggle, that is his right. Even if he never expects that nominee to actually be confirmed but rather to wield as an electoral cudgel, that is his right.”

The 11 Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, backed McConnell on the decision, signing a letter saying that the committee would not hold any hearings on Supreme Court nominees until after the next president’s inauguration.

Democrats threw up their arms in protest, accusing the GOP of being obstructionist, breaking with precedent and denying the president his constitutional rights.

“For Sen. McConnell and the Senate Republicans to walk away from this and to buy into the Trump strategy of delay, delay, delay is a further indication of the obstruction that we have faced in this chamber since the Republicans have been in control,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said. “This is the worst example.”

Republicans, however, argued that if the situation were reversed and a Democratic Senate majority faced an opening on the court during a Republican administration, Democrats would do the same thing. And both sides have pointed to a litany of past statements – including a 1992 Senate floor speech by Vice President Joe Biden and even a law journal article written by McConnell in 1970 – on the issue of Supreme Court nominations to label their opponents hypocrites.

Ultimately, while whomever Obama selects to fill Scalia’s seat will likely receive little more than a cold shoulder from the Senate, the Supreme Court vacancy is going to be one of the most vocalized and bitterly partisan fights of 2016.

Democratic Leader Harry Reid, both in a floor statement Tuesday morning and in a press conference hours later, compared the Republican tactics to the hard-line GOP presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. He said it was “hard to comprehend” and that Grassley would “go down in history as the most obstructionist Judiciary chair in the history of our country.”

Republicans seem to have determined that waiting is a worthwhile gamble. Scalia was the most consistent and outspoken conservative during his three decades on the court, and while Democratic senators have cautioned Obama to nominate a moderate, consensus pick rather than a progressive champion, even a moderate would fall far from Scalia’s ideology. Republicans are hoping that by holding out a year, a GOP president and Senate in 2017 could nominate and confirm another conservative justice to replace Scalia. But if Clinton wins in November and Democrats regain control of the Senate, the GOP will have far less power to influence the nominee.

In the days since Scalia’s death, the vast majority of Republicans rallied around the strategy of waiting until after the November election and allowing the next president to fill the vacant seat on the nation’s highest court, with only two indicating they would be willing to consider Obama’s selection.

And Republican leaders aren’t concerned about the impact this might have on their members in tough re-election fights.

None of the GOP incumbents running in purple states sit on the Judiciary Committee and thus had no role in the decision to avoid confirmation hearings. Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, considered among the most vulnerable GOP incumbents, all back the strategy to hold off on filling the seat until after the election. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk broke ranks and said Monday the Senate should consider Obama’s nominee.

Asked whether she backed not holding hearings, Ayotte said only that she was not on the Judiciary Committee and would leave decisions to the chairman and committee members. Johnson, when asked if he was comfortable with no hearings, said, “Sure. Not acting is acting.” Toomey, when asked about hearings, said simply, “I think the next president should make the decision about the vacancy on the Supreme Court.”

Sen. Roger Wicker, chairman of the GOP’s Senate campaign committee, said that when it comes to re-electing Republicans to the Senate, committee members were “very comfortable letting the American people speak on this issue.”

Many Republican senators argued that since they were committed to not supporting an Obama nominee, it made little sense to spend the time and effort on hearings. Sens. John Cornyn, Orrin Hatch and Lindsey Graham, who all sit on the Judiciary Committee, said they weren’t likely to take a meeting with Obama’s nominee, a common practice during the confirmation process. Graham added, however, that if Clinton were to win the White House in November, he would vote to confirm her pick for the court based only on the nominee’s qualifications.

While Democrats for the most part respect Republicans’ prerogative to oppose an Obama nominee in a vote, they consider declining to hold hearings or meet with one a bridge too far.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, said holding hearings, “shows respect and deference to the constitutional role of the president.” He added that having a hearing would demonstrate that the constitutional order “still functions even in the middle of a stunningly divisive presidential campaign.”

Republicans, however, showed little concern for Democrats’ calls of obstructionism. Graham called such accusations “silly,” and Hatch said he wasn’t at all worried about political pressure on the issue.

“Oh heavens no. My gosh, are you kidding?” Hatch said when asked if he had concerns Republicans could appear obstructionist. “Because it’s not obstruction. This is saying this is so important, it should not be brought up in this messy time and it ought to be brought up for the next president, whoever that may be."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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