Politics

Hardened Positions, Feelings at Oval Office Meeting on SCOTUS

Obama and McConnell talk during a meeting with Senate leaders, and leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to discuss the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court in the Oval Office at the White House. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A high-level Oval Office meeting Tuesday between top senators and President Barack Obama left no path forward on the contentious issue of whether the president should nominate someone to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  

Senior Senate Republicans were "adamant" during meeting that they would block any Supreme Court nominee Obama submits, according to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.  

Speaking outside the West Wing after the closed-door session, the Nevada Democrat said Tuesday “there wasn't much said at the meeting,” among Obama, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and the Judiciary panel’s top Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. McConnell and Grassley did not speak to the press after the meeting, choosing to head straight back to Capitol Hill.  

But speaking after the GOP policy luncheons, McConnell said they met with the president for around an hour. They spent half the time on SCOTUS and the other half having a "constructive" discussion on the opioid epidemic and criminal justice reform.  

"Sen. Grassley and I made it clear that we don't intend to take up a nominee or to have a hearing. And it was a good opportunity to reiterate our view that an appointment should be made by the next president … This vacancy will not be filled this year. We will look forward to the American people deciding who they want to make this appointment through their own votes."  

Asked what he said to Obama, McConnell said, "I told the president what I've been saying for close to two weeks now and what I just said a few minutes ago. Yeah. Nothing you haven't heard"  

Grassley followed up shortly after with his own statement. “Whether everybody in the meeting today wanted to admit it, we all know that considering a nomination in the middle of a heated presidential campaign is bad for the nominee, bad for the court, bad for the process, and ultimately bad for the nation. It’s time for the people to voice their opinion about the role of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system of government,” the Iowan said.  

Reid called the meeting “very short” and said the two Republicans served up no names when Obama told them if they had preferred Supreme Court candidates “he would consider them.”  

It appears Senate Republicans are waiting to see “what President Trump will do” to fill the seat vacated last month by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Reid said. He was referring to GOP front-runner Donald Trump, who appears poised to move closer to his party’s presidential nomination later Tuesday night with Super Tuesday primary voting.  

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the meeting “straightforward,” adding it was not aimed at either side changing their views.  

He reiterated Reid’s stance that Obama would consider potential Supreme Court candidates offered by Republican or Democratic members.  

Earnest also warned that if GOP senators do not back down, it would “escalate” the politicization of a branch of government intended to be as free from politics as possible.  

Asked what leverage Senate Democrats have to force Republicans to hold hearings and possibly a floor vote on an Obama nominee, Reid replied, “That nasty Constitution.”  

Speaking alongside Reid, Leahy said this was the fifth time he has been summoned to the White House to meet with members of both parties about Supreme Court vacancies.  

“Every one of these senators raised their hand and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution ‘So help me God’,” Leahy said. “You can’t just stand there and say, ‘We’re not going to uphold it.’  

“Let’s just do it,” Leahy said. “Vote up or vote down.”  

Still, Leahy later on said it was worth the effort.  

"Everybody got a chance to talk. Everybody got a chance to say whether they agree or disagree … I thought it was a worthwhile meeting. I'm glad we did it," he said.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.

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