Washington digs in for Supreme Court fight
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The White House is making clear that President Barack Obama will defy Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail who want him to leave the momentous task of nominating a new Supreme Court justice to the next administration.
“This is not the first time that Republicans have come out with a lot of bluster, only to have reality ultimately sink in,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters Monday.
Schultz pointed to previous White House victories over the GOP-led Congress — raising the debt limit, implementing the Iran nuclear deal and reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank — and said history shows “Republicans fell back when their positions aren’t tenable.”
Washington is in tumult after the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia, which left a turbulent White House race transformed, a lame-duck president back at the center of the political storm and Senate Republican leaders juggling an electoral hand grenade. After the shock of Scalia’s passing and the swift eruption of a bitter partisan feud over his replacement, Obama and his GOP adversaries are digging in for a showdown.
Schultz emphasized Obama’s plans to nominate a successor to Scalia and said it’s the Senate’s job to fulfill its constitutional duty to consider that nominee.
“There are no caveats. The Constitution does not include exemptions for election years or for the president’s last term in office. There’s no exemption for when a vacancy could tip the balance of the court,” Schultz said.
But he said Obama won’t select a nominee immediately.
“The president will take the time and rigor this process deserves before selecting a nominee. I would not anticipate an announcement this week, especially given that the Senate is out of recess,” Schultz said Monday. “But as soon as the Senate returns, the president was very clear that he’s going to fulfill his constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor to Justice Scalia.”
That position ensures a titanic fight over Scalia’s replacement, placing Obama on a collision course with Republicans while thickening the plot of an election that now leaves the White House, the Senate and the nation’s top court up for grabs.
GOP presidential candidates are leading the charge in the battle over a replacement for Scalia, a beloved icon for conservatives who was found dead at the age of 79 at a resort in West Texas on Saturday. They are warning that since an appointment could remake the court for a generation as key legal battles over abortion rights, affirmative action and campaign finance loom, it should be put off until next year.
“This is for the people to decide,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said at a rally in South Carolina on Monday. “I intend to make 2016 a referendum on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Capitol Hill battle
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already warned Obama not to try to fill the vacancy on the Court, saying it should be up to a new president to weigh in once voters have spoken in November.
McConnell must navigate a treacherous political moment and decide whether a Republican maneuver to block a confirmation process could benefit his party at the polls or risk driving up Democratic turnout in November and put his grip on the Senate at risk.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and several other Democrats want Obama to choose a Supreme Court nominee who would inflict maximum political pain on Republicans because he or she would be very difficult for the GOP to oppose, according to two Democratic sources.
In other words, some influential Senate Democrats want Obama to choose a nominee who Republicans would ordinarily support but are only opposing now because it’s an election year. This, they believe, would allow them to paint the GOP as intransigent and well outside of the mainstream, undermining the Senate GOP’s election-year argument that they are committed to governing in a bipartisan manner.
Going this route, they believe, would increasingly ratchet up pressure on at-risk Republicans who are facing tough reelections, energize the Democratic base and potentially flip the Senate if the GOP stands in their way and denies a popular nominee a vote.
Reid spoke with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough shortly after Scalia’s death, according to a source familiar with the call.
It’s unclear who specifically Reid wants in the post. Some Democrats point to appellate judge Sri Srinivasan, who would be the first justice of South Asian descent serving on the court and was confirmed to his current post by a 97-0 vote in 2013.
“I think the president, past is prologue, will nominate someone who is in the mainstream,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, the likely incoming Democratic leader, said Sunday.
But several other Democrats are also pointing to other potential groundbreaking choices and candidates who don’t hold judicial posts, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.
Pressure on Republicans
The sudden political crisis also put one group of Republicans — swing-state senators whose seats could dictate whether the GOP can hang on to the chamber in November — in a difficult position. Privately, senior Democratic officials told CNN that there’s little chance of Obama’s nominee winning confirmation unless these endangered GOPers break ranks.
One vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, would not say if they wanted the Senate to deny Obama’s nominee a vote.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, who often votes with Republicans, wants the Senate to act on a nominee when the President puts one forward, an aide to the senator told CNN.
But several others made clear they stood with Republican leaders who believe that the issue could invigorate conservative turnout in November.
“I strongly agree that the American people should decide the future direction of the Supreme Court by their votes for president and the majority party in the U.S. Senate,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a vulnerable incumbent, said in an email to CNN.
And in a statement, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican facing a competitive reelection fight in 2016, said the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court nominee until a new president is elected.
“We’re in the midst of a consequential presidential election year,” Ayotte said, “and Americans deserve an opportunity to weigh in given the significant implications this nomination could have for the Supreme Court and our country for decades to come.”
On Monday, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania became the fourth of five swing-state Republicans to back McConnell’s strategy.
“We should honor Justice Scalia’s legacy, and we should put off a decision on his replacement until the newly-elected president can make his or her choice,” Toomey said in a statement.
Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican up for re-election this year, also said Monday he thought the future president should nominate Scalia’s replacement.
“Whether the next president is a Republican or Democrat, I will judge any nominee on the merits, as I always have,” Portman said in a statement.