The Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have reached consensus that President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court should receive no hearing and no vote.
After a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the committee's Republicans wrote him a letter confirming they do not plan to move forward on finding a successor for Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative stalwart who died Feb. 13.
"Given the particular circumstances under which this vacancy arises, we wish to inform you of our intention to exercise our constitutional authority to withhold consent on any nominee to the Supreme Court submitted by this President to fill Justice Scalia's vacancy," according to the letter. "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."
Late Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Democrats fired off their own letter to Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa in rebuttal.
"You may view the decision to deny the next Supreme Court nominee a hearing as politically expedient. But the fact is your decision will harm our constitutional democracy and undermine the Supreme Court’s ability to be our Nation's final arbiter of the law. You and the Majority Leader have decided to deprive the American people of a fully functioning Supreme Court for two terms," the Democrats wrote. "History will not look kindly on this decision, nor will the American people."
The Democrats emphasized that the decision by panel Republicans did not represent a "unanimous" stand by the committee.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also urged Republicans to reject this path, which would likely leave a vacancy on the court for more than a year.
"This is really a pivotal moment for the Republican Party and this Republican Senate," the Nevada Democrat said in one of his more biting floor speeches. "The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt is transforming before our eyes, abandoning its last vestiges of decency and unconditionally surrendering its moral compass to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Behind closed doors my Republican colleagues like to express disappointment at the direction the party has taken but never, ever would they say anything publicly because these extreme elements in their party who seem to be running the party would criticize them.
"Republicans should think long and hard about this simple fact: If they follow the course set by the Republican Leader, every one of them will be responsible as Trump and Cruz for the debasement of the Republican party," Reid continued.
A few Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, have called for considering Obama's nominee and at least holding hearings, many others have said there should be nothing done until the next president takes office in January 2017.
McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, asserted that the Senate would not grant consent to an Obama nominee for the Supreme Court seat, citing past statements by Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Biden, in particular, gave a lengthy speech in June 1992 asserting that the Senate should not choose a new justice in a presidential election year. Both Democrats have said their statements related to events far different from the current situation.
"It's been more than 80 years — 80 years since a Supreme Court vacancy arose and was filled in a presidential election year," McConnell said. "Since we have divided government today, it means we have to look back almost 130 years to the last time a nominee was confirmed in similar circumstances," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
"Will we allow the people to continue deciding who will nominate the next justice or will we empower a lame duck president to make that decision on his way out the door instead?" McConnell continued. "The question of who decides has been contemplated by many, including our friends on the other side of the aisle."
On the Democratic side, Senate Judiciary member Chris Coons, D-Del., said party members will be discussing potential steps in response to Republicans at their weekly lunch Tuesday afternoon. He said he would be reaching out to rank and file Republican senators to see if they could find common ground.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said "We're developing our strategies to make sure we live up to the Constitution and live by the Constitution."
She acknowledged that the impasse could affect the appropriations process. "I think we're going to see," she said. We're not sure what other dilatory tactics they'll do, but when you only give a president a three-year term, who knows what tricks they're going to [try]."
Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said he hoped the Supreme Court nomination wouldn't stop the Senate from developing a budget.
"There's just a lot of things we need to get done that both sides have an interest in getting done," Thune said. "I think that everybody's going to have to focus on the big picture and realize that the differences of opinion we have about the court are just one, small discussion in a much broader debate... .Obviously we have to fund the government, we gotta pass appropriations bills."
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said "This is an election year, we'll probably have a lame duck session, you know, everything usually works itself out, maybe not always."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the GOP's position on the Supreme Court nominee was part of a broader failure to perform their "basic Constitutional responsibilities.
"On the part of Congress, you see nothing," he said, criticizing them for "refusing to engage" on the nominee, Obama's plan to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, a hearing with the White House budget chief, and a measure to authorize the fight against the Islamic State.
Bridget Bowman, Ryan McCrimmon, John Bennett, Todd Ruger and Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report. Contact Lesniewski at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at@neilslesniewski.
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