Court fight may throw wrench into legislative plans

Source: Geof Koss, Hannah Hess and George Cahlink, E&E reporters • Posted: Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Senate Republicans’ decision to stonewall President Obama’s upcoming nomination to the Supreme Court may throw a monkey wrench into a legislative agenda already complicated by election-year politics.

Even though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worry about the repercussions of the impasse, Republicans are determined to show that the Senate is functioning under their leadership as they head into November, when both the presidency and control of the chamber are up for grabs.

Republican Conference Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) yesterday predicted that the standoff over filling Justice Antonin Scalia’s high court seat wouldn’t affect legislation.

“I wouldn’t think it should affect anything else in the Senate at all,” he told reporters. “There’s a lot of interest on both sides in moving bills that have to get done.”

While Senate Democrats lambasted Republicans for saying they wouldn’t hold hearings or even meet with the nominee, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yesterday said his party has no plans to shut down the chamber.

“I’m not going to turn into the obstruct caucus,” Reid told reporters. “We’re going to do our work; we have a lot of work to do. And we’re going to proceed.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior appropriator, drew a distinction between the court fight and the rest of the Senate’s business, such as the annual spending bills — another top priority for the majority.

“You have a nominee to the court, we need to stop that in its tracks, and I think we will,” he said yesterday. “And then you have the appropriations bills that run the government — that’s two different things.”

Still, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said the political fallout from the Supreme Court fight would have ripple effects on the Senate’s day-to-day affairs.

“It could make it more complicated, more difficult,” Durbin told reporters. “I hope we can step back and look at this historic moment here — this is not just another vote on another issue. This has never been done before.”

Durbin went on: “For the majority in the Senate to say that they will not even consider a nominee of the president, wouldn’t even meet with the nominee — that’s never happened before. So [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell has taken a very tough position, and taking that position makes it difficult for ordinary business.”

Durbin’s comments came after the 11 Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee wrote McConnell (R-Ky.) a letter saying the panel would not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after the next president is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2017.

“We intend to exercise the constitutional power granted the Senate under Article II, Section 2 to ensure the American people are not deprived of the opportunity to engage in a full and robust debate over the type of jurist they wish to decide some of the most critical issues of our time,” the letter states.

McConnell went a step further, saying he would not even meet with Obama’s nominee. Custom requires that judicial branch nominees travel to the Capitol to shake hands and sit down with members of Congress, a courtesy call that helps score political points.

“I don’t know the purpose of such a visit. I would not be inclined to take one myself,” McConnell told reporters.

The letter from the Judiciary Committee’s Republicans represents the “consensus between the far right and the far, far right,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Effect on energy bill

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) yesterday said it was unclear what effect the Supreme Court fight would have on the committee’s stalled bipartisan energy package (S. 2012) but said discussions are continuing on bringing the measure back to the floor (E&E Daily, Feb. 10).

“My hope is that we’ll be able to come up with a path forward on energy quickly and move it on through,” she said yesterday in an interview.

Durbin signaled that Democrats wouldn’t ease up pressure on filling the vacancy, including by meeting with President Obama’s eventual nominee.

“We don’t have a strategy or plan in response to this, but we’re not going to let this go away,” he said. “McConnell is clearly hoping that this is the last day that you’ll ever ask him a question about this. He won’t be so lucky.”

Durbin added, “A nominee will be sent up by the White House; we’ll be discussing the nominee, reminding the American people that the Republicans in the Senate refused to do their job.”

Reid predicted that McConnell would back down once he feels pressure from the public, like Republicans did during the federal government shutdown in 2013.

Political polling firms have released surveys in the wake of Scalia’s death showing the scales of public opinion tilting toward letting Obama pick a successor. Reid said the American people “won’t stand” for the GOP’s blockade.

“Sixty-two percent of the American people support our position,” he said. “That’s a good starting point. And I think they’re going to find growing pressure on these Republicans.”

Democrats tried to tie the nominations stalemate to the presidential bids of real estate mogul Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), accusing conservatives of trying to hold the government hostage.

The political pressure will continue this afternoon, when Senate Democrats will hold a forum with legal scholars on the chamber’s “constitutional responsibility to act” on the Supreme Court vacancy.

Still, Republicans show no sign of backing down.

Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said hearings would be pointless. “If we know what the outcome is going to be, and we are united on that, I don’t see the point of going through the motions of creating a misleading impression that something else is going on,” Cornyn said.

However, not all Republicans are united against Obama naming a replacement. The moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has already broken from the party line on the vacancy.

“My position remains that if the president sends up a nominee, whether or not I ultimately would support that nominee, I believe that hearings are helpful in assessing the qualifications, the intellect, the integrity, character, experience and adherence to the Constitution and rule of law of the nominee,” she said.

But the bulk of Republicans echoed the sentiment of Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said the next president would pick Scalia’s replacement. “This is going to go to the American people — end of story,” he told reporters yesterday.

Reporter Amanda Reilly contributed.