In an unprecedented move, Senate Republicans vowed to deny holding confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee — even promising to deny meeting privately with whomever the President picks.
The historic move outraged Democrats and injected Supreme Court politics into the center of an already tense battle for the White House.
“I don’t know how many times we need to keep saying this: The Judiciary Committee has unanimously recommended to me that there be no hearing. I’ve said repeatedly and I’m now confident that my Congress agrees that this decision ought to be made by the next president, whoever is elected,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.
He then added he would not likely meet with any nominee, a custom that high court nominees typically do before hearings. “I don’t know the purpose of such a visit I would not be inclined to take it myself.”
The decision to not hold hearings is a historic move from the Senate, which has regularly held confirmation hearings for nominees since hearings became routine practice in 1955, the Senate historian’s office said Tuesday.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he also would not meet with a nominee “I don’t see the point in going through the motions, if we know what the outcome is going to be. I don’t see the point in going through the motions and creating a misleading impression.”
Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told reporters at an afternoon press conference that the Republicans on the Judiciary committee submitted a letter to the Republican leaders unanimously opposing any hearing for a nominee to replace late Justice Antonin Scalia.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said that’s the “consensus” view among Republicans on the committee and Cornyn said the same.
“We believe the American people need to decide who is going to make this appointment rather than a lame-duck president,” Cornyn said Tuesday as he left a meeting of top Republicans discussing how to handle the White House’s promised nominee.
Graham told CNN separately he would not even meet with any nominee, should he or she make courtesy calls on the Hill. As did Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican.
But Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said he would meet with any nominee who came knocking. “I wouldn’t have a problem with that. The President’s going to do his job and I’ll do mine.”
A Fox News poll released earlier this month found that registered voters want Obama and Senate leaders to “take action to fill the vacancy now” by a margin of 62% to 34%. A Pew Research Center poll released Monday found a majority of Americans (56%) say the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Obama’s choice to fill the vacancy, with 38% saying they should not hold hearings until the next president takes office.
In a sharply worded statement on the Senate floor earlier Tuesday, McConnell bluntly warned the White House that the GOP-controlled Senate would not act on anyone he chooses to sit on the high court.
“Presidents have a right to nominate just as the Senate has its constitutional right to provide or withhold consent,” McConnell said. “In this case, the Senate will withhold it.”
The announcement prompted sharp criticism from Democrats, who contended that the GOP-led Senate was failing to do its job and would be risking its tenuous hold on the majority in the fall elections.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said McConnell was taking his marching orders from Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who had called on the Senate to delay consideration of any nominee.
“That’s exactly what the Republican leader is doing: Delay, delay, delay,” Reid said. He angrily added that “333 days isn’t enough to do the work that we do ordinarily do in 67 days.”
But Democrats are uncertain over whether to bottle-up the Senate in retaliation for the GOP’s hardball move. And for the second day in a row, Vice President Joe Biden is center stage as Senate Republican leaders are growing increasingly confident they can unite their party behind a hard-ball strategy to block any consideration of an Obama nominee.
Republicans are seizing on old Democratic talking points — focused namely on Biden — to make their case against confirmation proceedings.
The latest revelation: A June 1992 interview Biden gave to The Washington Post, arguing against confirmation hearings of a prospective nominee by President George H.W. Bush to the nation’s highest court.
“If someone steps down, I would highly recommend the President not name someone, not send a name up,” Biden, then the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, told the newspaper, noting how close it was to the November elections.
“If (Bush) did send someone up, I would ask the Senate to seriously consider not having a hearing on that nominee,” Biden had said.
The comments from the nearly 24-year-old interview came after Republicans seized on a clip Monday of Biden making similar comments on the Senate floor. In response, Biden pushed back and said the GOP was taking his comments out of context.
“In the same statement critics are pointing to today, I urged the Senate and White House to work together to overcome partisan differences to ensure the court functions as the Founding Fathers intended,” Biden said in a Monday statement. “That remains my position today.”
Nevertheless, the comments gave new ammunition to the hardening GOP lines against anyone the President sends to Capitol Hill.
Republicans are worried that giving the new nominee an opportunity to present his or her case before a national audience will only give the White House momentum in confirming a nominee to replace Scalia, tipping the balance of the court. But it could present bad optics, especially if the nominee is viewed as highly qualified and Republicans refuse to meet with him or her.
Some vulnerable Republicans were prepared to side with their party’s leadership as well, a heartening development for the Senate GOP.
“I think we should not confirm someone this year, I think we should let the people weigh in,” said Sen. Rob Portman, a vulnerable Republican up for reelection from the battleground state of Ohio. “The credibility of the court will be enhanced by that, too.”
But at the same time, two moderate Republicans — Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine — support holding hearings, giving Democrats confidence divisions are bound to grow in the GOP ranks once a nominee is proposed.
“We should take this process one step at a time as we always do under the regular order,” Collins told CNN. “I would expect that there would be a hearing on a nominee when it’s sent to us for our consideration… The hearing would help me make a better decision.”