The bitter standoff over the next Supreme Court nominee spilled into a Senate hearing on Wednesday, foreshadowing how the conflict could permeate the Judiciary Committee's business to come.
Panel ranking member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., used his opening remarks at a hearing on Department of Justice oversight to scold Republicans for deciding not to give President Barack Obama's upcoming Supreme Court nominee a hearing or vote. Republicans announced their decision shortly after Justice Antonin Scalia's death on Feb. 13, arguing the next president should fill the vacancy so that voters can have a say in the process.
"Today, as we talk about the Justice Department’s responsibility to keep Americans safe, we should remember that the Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider the next Supreme Court nominee will make that very goal harder for the Justice Department," Leahy said. He noted that refusing to consider a nominee will leave the bench down one justice.
Without Scalia, the court is evenly divided with four justices appointed by Democratic presidents and four appointed by Republicans. As Leahy spoke, the Republicans on the committee looked down at their notes, and the Democrats talked among themselves.
The committee's chairman, Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, responded that the GOP decision was akin to the president saying he was going to veto a piece of legislation before it passed.
“Senator Leahy has every right to say what he is going to do,” Grassley said. "Whether it’s today or tomorrow, or whether it’s for the next seven or eight months, this is a very important debate that we ought to have about the Constitution.”
Grassley has become a top target of Senate Democrats, who have been taking to the Senate floor to admonish Republicans for promising to not consider the president's nominee. On Tuesday, Democrats hosted his Senate challenger , former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, at their weekly party lunch.
As the senators exchanged words on the Supreme Court, Attorney General Loretta Lynch sat at the witness table. On Tuesday, she withdrew her name from consideration for the nomination, and elaborated at a women's forum that she has more she wants to accomplish as attorney general before Obama leaves office in 2017.
"You would have been a great Supreme Court justice," Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., told Lynch at the hearing. He quizzed Lynch on how her department would be affected by a vacancy on the high court.
Schumer asked Lynch if a functioning Supreme Court matters to her department, and Lynch responded, "It certainly matters to the executive branch and the Department of Justice.”
Grassley said he expected a deeper debate about the Supreme Court during the committee's business meeting on Thursday. The routine meeting was postponed after the chairman and ranking member could not agree on where and when to meet.
"I think tomorrow, if you want to hear a full-blown debate on this issue," Grassley said, "I think we'll probably have one before our committee tomorrow."
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