The battle over a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy comes into sharper focus this week, as the Senate gets back to work after a weeklong recess and the White House continues to examine potential nominees.
The partisan stand-off over replacing Justice Antonin Scalia extends well beyond Washington and has been magnified and intensified by election year politics.
Bells tolled Saturday at Washington’s Roman Catholic basilica as a nation paid final respects to Scalia, an arch-conservative jurist known for lively exchanges during oral arguments before the high court and colorful opinions written from the bench. A day earlier, as his casket lay in repose at the Supreme Court, arguments about filling his seat thundered across the city.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley – both Republicans – penned an opinion piece in The Washington Post saying the next president, not Barack Obama, should choose Scalia’s replacement on the high court.
“Rarely does a Supreme Court vacancy occur in the final year of a presidential term, and the Senate has not confirmed a nominee to fill a vacancy arising in such circumstances for the better part of a century,” McConnell and Grassley wrote. “So the American people have a particular opportunity now to make their voice heard in the selection of Scalia’s successor as they participate in the process to select their next president, as they decide who they trust to both lead the country and nominate the next Supreme Court justice.”
The White House sharply disagreed.
“The president has a constitutional duty to nominate a successor whenever there is a vacancy at the Supreme Court, and the Senate has a solemn constitutional duty to give that person a fair hearing and a timely yes-or-no vote,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Republicans do not deny that Obama may put forth a nominee, but they insist the Senate is entitled to withhold its consent and delay filling the vacancy until after the November presidential election. A few Republican senators have partially broken ranks with McConnell and said the chamber should at least consider anyone Obama puts forward. But consideration is no guarantee of confirmation, and most observers doubt enough bipartisan support would materialize to advance a nomination to a final vote.
Already, interest groups are broadcasting advertisements on U.S. airwaves.
“The Supreme Court has a vacancy, and your vote in November is your only voice,” intoned a television ad by a pro-delay advocacy group calling itself “Judicial Crisis Network”.
“You choose the next president. The next president chooses the next justice,” the advertisement’s narrator added.
Democrats are fighting back with messages of their own.
“That is not how the Constitution works,” Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said of Republican calls to put off filling the high court vacancy.
“You hear Republicans say they will reject any justice that President Obama nominates, no matter how qualified. Well my friends, let’s remind Republicans: Barack Obama is President of the United States,” Clinton added.
Two of the three top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination are senators, and neither is shying from the fight.
“This election will be a referendum on the Supreme Court, and I’ll tell you this: I cannot wait to stand on that debate stage with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or whatever other socialist they [Democrats] nominate,” said Senator Ted Cruz.
The White House could put forth a nominee in a matter of days or weeks.