WASHINGTON — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell emphatically ruled out any Senate action on whoever President Barack Obama nominates to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, an extraordinary step that escalated the partisan election-year struggle over replacing the late Antonin Scalia. Democrats promised unremitting pressure on Republicans to back down or face the consequences in November’s voting.
After winning unanimous public backing from the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, McConnell told reporters that that 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 controversial 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the Judiciary Committee and nearly always sent to the entire chamber for a vote, barring nominees the White House has withdrawn.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.
The Kentucky Republican said he wouldn’t even meet with an Obama selection should the White House follow tradition and send the nominee to Capitol Hill to visit senators. Such a snub could generate campaign-season television images of a scorned selection standing outside a closed door.
“I don’t know the purpose of such a visit,” McConnell said. “I would not be inclined to take one myself.”
Obama is expected to announce a nomination in the next few weeks. 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routinely referring presidential nominations to committees for action in 1955, every Supreme Court nominee not later withdrawn has received a Judiciary Committee hearing, according to the Senate Historical Office.
With the issue certain to roil this year’s presidential and congressional elections, Democrats said Republicans were topping their own obstructionist high-water mark of three years ago, when their doomed effort to force Obama to repeal his own health care law helped produce a 16-day partial government shutdown.
They also 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 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 an arduous 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 November re-election in swing states including New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will relent over time or face retribution from voters.
No. 3 Senate leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said McConnell wanted to quickly end any talk of a nomination process proceeding because, “He wants to lock his people in because he knows the whirlwind’s coming.”
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.
McConnell and other Republicans have said the high court vacancy should not be filled during a presidential election year and that the voters — by electing the next president — should choose who makes that nomination.
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.
“Because our decision is based on constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people, this committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next president is sworn in on January 20, 2017,” Judiciary Committee Republicans said in their letter to McConnell.
In remarks Tuesday at Georgetown University law school, Justice Samuel Alito sounded unfazed about possibly 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.