New York Times
By David Herszenhorn
February 23, 2016
Senate Republican leaders said Tuesday that there would be no confirmation hearings, no vote, not even a courtesy meeting with President Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, all but slamming shut any prospects for an election-year Supreme Court confirmation.
Together with a written vow from Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee that they would not hold any confirmation hearings, the pledge was the clearest statement yet from the Senate’s majority party that it would do everything it can to prevent Mr. Obama from shifting the ideological balance of the nation’s high court. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, urged Mr. Obama to reconsider even submitting a name.
“This nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the polls,” Mr. McConnell said. “I agree with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that we not have hearings. In short, there will not be action taken.”
Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee sent this letter to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, vowing not to hold hearings on a nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.
The forceful moves that followed, even before Mr. Obama put forward a choice for the court, has the Senate into unprecedented territory: Senators meet with high-court nominees as matters of courtesy and cordiality, but even that tradition has been rejected.
“I don’t know the purpose of such a visit,” Mr. McConnell said. “I would not be inclined to take that myself.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, concurred. “I don’t see the point of going through the motions if we know what the outcome is going to be,” he said.
Battles over the Supreme Court have grown increasingly contentious since the 1960s, when Republicans and conservative Democrats blocked President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination of Justice Abe Fortas to become chief justice, congressional historians said. But the refusal to grant a nominee any consideration was a startling turn.
“What is remarkable is the opposition is not to a particular candidate or even to the notion Obama will only nominate someone too extreme, but that he should not have any right to have a nomination considered,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“This is not even like the drawn-out confirmation process that President Wilson faced with Louis Brandeis,” Professor Zelizer said. “This is the argument that nothing should even be considered.”
The White House on Tuesday warned that the Republicans were risking an extraordinary escalation of partisan rancor in a process that should be free of it.
“This would be a historic and unprecedented acceleration of politicizing a branch of government that’s supposed to be insulated from politics,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, who said on Twitter that every Supreme Court nominee since 1875 had received a hearing or a vote.
Senate Democrats lashed out but seemed powerless to force Republicans to alter course.
“The Senate, the world’s greatest deliberative body?” the minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, asked, railing against the Republicans. “They’re not going to deliberate at all.”
Mr. Reid asserted that Senate Republicans were taking direction from the party’s leading presidential candidates — “It’s what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz want.” He also took aim at Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has the power to hold confirmation hearings but signed the letter to Mr. McConnell on Tuesday, along with every other committee Republican, saying no such proceedings would take place until a new president is in the White House.
“It appears that Senator Grassley’s going to follow through on this plan,” Mr. Reid said. “He will go down in history as the most obstructionist Judiciary chair in the history of our country.”
While Democrats said they had so far not come up with any parliamentary tactic that might force Mr. McConnell’s hand, they began laying the groundwork for an aggressive effort to keep public attention focused on the court fight, at least until Mr. Obama announced a nominee.
The Republicans’ refusal to even meet with a candidate raised the prospect of some dramatic confrontations as Democrats usher a nominee through the halls of Congress.
But Republicans seemed emboldened in large measure because of Mr. Biden’s 1992 floor speech, which has become a staple of their talking points.
Mr. Biden, now the vice president, said his words were taken out of context, and he issued a statement boasting of his record in confirming federal judges while the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Aides to Mr. Biden also insisted on Tuesday that he had been warning against filling a vacancy created by a voluntary resignation of a justice, not by an unexpected death. In any event, no such vacancy occurred.
Told that Democrats were asserting that such past statements were irrelevant, Mr. McConnell and other Republican leaders laughed.
Mr. Obama “has every right to nominate someone,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Even if doing so will inevitably plunge our nation into another bitter and avoidable struggle, that certainly is his right. Even if he never expects that nominee to be actually confirmed but rather to wield as an election cudgel, he certainly has the right to do that.”
Mr. McConnell added: “But he also has the right to make a different choice. He can let the people decide and make this an actual legacy-building moment rather than just another campaign roadshow.”
As Republicans made their intentions clear, the White House was digging in for what could be a long fight, tying the coming confirmation battle to other issues on which Congress has stymied Mr. Obama’s agenda.
“There is this emerging trend in Congress that has worsened in just the last few weeks, where Congress isn’t simply in a position of just saying ‘no,’ Congress is actually refusing to engage,” said Mr. Earnest, the press secretary. He cited Republicans’ refusal on Tuesday to consider the president’s plan for shutting the United States military prison at Guantánamo Bay, their inaction on a new authorization for military force against the Islamic State, and their unwillingness to convene the customary annual hearing on the president’s budget plan.
“They’re doing just about everything, except for fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities,” Mr. Earnest said.
Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said he had urged the White House to select a centrist candidate with impeccable credentials for the court. He urged Republicans to allow the process to move forward, and said he feared the breakdown that could result should they ultimately refuse.
Holding a confirmation hearing “shows respect and deference to the constitutional role of the presidency,” he said. If Republicans refuse, he continued, “it would be just one more reminder to the average American and to the world that our carefully constructed constitutional framework is at risk of failure.”
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