No hearing. No vote. Don’t even bother knocking on our door.
That’s the message Senate Republicans delivered to President Barack Obama and his sometime-soon nominee for the Supreme Court, an extraordinary election-year rebuff as the GOP insists that replacing Justice Antonin Scalia rests with voters in November’s election and the next president.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that his 54-member GOP caucus was united against taking any step in the Senate’s “advise and consent” process. The Judiciary Committee will not hold confirmation hearings for the nominee. The panel and the full Senate will not vote. And a handful of Republicans, including McConnell, said they would not even meet with the nominee when the individual makes introductions on Capitol Hill.
“Why would I? We’ve made the decision,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a member of the Judiciary panel.
After winning unanimous public backing from the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, McConnell told reporters that the panel would hold no hearings and ruled out a full Senate vote until the next president offers a nomination. Such steps would defy many decades of precedent that have seen even the most divisive choices questioned publicly by the Judiciary Committee and nearly always sent to the entire chamber for a vote, barring nominees the White House has withdrawn.
“In short, there will not be action taken,” McConnell told reporters.
As one rationale for their decision, Republicans pointed to a June 1992 speech by Vice President Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in which Biden said that if a seat on the court were to open up that year, “action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over.”
Obama is expected to announce a nomination in the next few weeks. With the issue certain to roil this year’s presidential and congressional elections, Democrats accused Republicans of following the lead of billionaire Donald Trump, a leading GOP presidential candidate who’s called on Senate Republicans to derail any Obama court selection. Democrats and some Republicans believe that if Trump is the GOP presidential nominee, he will cost Republicans seats in Congress.
“The party of Lincoln is now the party of Donald Trump,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters.
Filling the vacancy left by Scalia’s unexpected death on Feb. 13 is crucial because without him, the Supreme Court is left in a 4-4 ideological knot between justices who are usually conservative and its liberal wing. The battle has invigorated both sides’ interest groups and voters who focus on abortion, immigration and other issues before the court.
“He hasn’t seen the pressure that’s going to build,” Reid said when asked if he thinks McConnell might relent. “It’s going to build in all facets of the political constituency and the country.”
After meeting privately with GOP senators for the first time since Scalia’s death, McConnell and other leaders said rank-and-file Republicans were overwhelmingly behind the decision to quickly halt the nomination process.
“Why even put that ball on the field?” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said of hearings. “All you’re going to do is fumble it. Let the people decide.”
Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who faces a tough re-election race this fall, are among the few who’ve voiced support for at least holding hearings on an Obama nominee. Democrats are hoping that other Republican senators facing re-election in states Obama won twice — New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — will relent over time or face retribution from voters.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said it was “absolutely” possible the Senate would end up holding hearings, pointing to statements by Collins, Kirk and others. Earnest said Obama has spoken in the last day to Republican lawmakers, including some on the Judiciary panel.
Democrats note that in 1988, a Democratic-led Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy to the court, though he’d been nominated by President Ronald Reagan the preceding year. Republicans say it’s been over eight decades since a nomination occurred and was filled in the same election year.
Since the Senate started routinely referring presidential nominations to committees for action in 1955, every Supreme Court nominee not later withdrawn has received a Judiciary Committee hearing, according to the Senate Historical Office.
In remarks Tuesday at Georgetown University law school, Justice Samuel Alito sounded resigned to spending the rest of this year in a court whose members are locked in a 4-4 tie.
“We will deal with it,” Alito answered when asked about Republicans’ resolve to oppose anyone Obama nominates.