The man in charge of maintaining the Senate Republican majority says he isn't concerned about any blowback now that GOP senators have agreed they will not allow either a hearing or a vote for any nominee President Barack Obama submits to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
"Elections have consequences, and the election this November will have consequences as to the type of Senate we have and to our being disposed to confirm nominees in the vein of Justice Scalia," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker told reporters Tuesday. "Or, the American people if they so choose could choose a Senate that will be delighted to have overly liberal and expansionist justices."
The Mississippi senator's remarks came after a lunch meeting from which the Republican conference emerged virtually united behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's decision not to consider a successor for Scalia, the conservative stalwart who died Feb. 13, until after a new president takes office in January 2017. That would leave the court seat vacant for a year or more.
"We are very comfortable letting the American people speak to this issue," Wicker said. "The American people will choose a president in November, and they'll get a choice between a president who is likely to appoint someone in the tradition of Justice Scalia, or a president who's more likely to appoint the type of nominee that we've seen from President Obama."
Democrats moved quickly to capitalize on what they called "unprecedented obstructionism" by Senate Republicans. Democratic leaders said they would not retaliate by obstructing other legislative business but would hammer home the GOP position in floor speeches and on the campaign trail.
"The bottom line is the pressure is going to come, not from holding up the legislative agenda — we’re going to let these bills move forward — it's going to come from the American people and some of their members who are under huge pressure," said New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who could well lead the Senate if Democrats reclaim a majority in November.
The Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic aligned group, unveiled a new round of digital advertising Tuesda y highlighting the GOP stance and targeting the most vulnerable incumbents.
“People across the country are fed up with Republicans putting politics ahead of the public good and McConnell’s unprecedented obstructionism has made his entire caucus that much more vulnerable this November,” Shripal Shah, a spokesman for Senate Majority PAC, said in a statement to Roll Call.
Democrats working to unseat incumbent Republicans in swing states also seized on the news. In New Hampshire, Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan's campaign quickly linked her opponent, GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, to the GOP position.
"Ayotte continues to side with the likes of [Sen.] Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz against the people of New Hampshire by putting partisan politics over the job she was elected to do," said Aaron Jacobs, Hassan's communications director.
The Supreme Court could become a campaign issue in Wisconsin, as well, where Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is facing a challenge from Democrat and former Sen. Russ Feingold.
"Certainly the people of Wisconsin want to see the Senate do its job, the president do [his] job, and the Supreme Court do its job. So I think it will definitely be of interest," said Tammy Baldwin, the state's Democratic senator.
Connecting Cruz and Trump to the Republican decision-making on the Supreme Court nomination has been a key to the emerging Senate Democratic messaging.
"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," Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday morning on the Senate floor.
Cruz, a Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate who sits on the Judiciary Committee, has said since Scalia's death that there should be no steps to advance an Obama nominee, a point he reiterated speaking with reporters after the late justice's funeral mass Saturday in Washington.
"We have an election in just a few months. I think the American people should be able to choose the direction of this court. This election now is not one branch of government; it is two," Cruz said. "And this should be a choice given to the American people where the voters can decide."
Several senior Republicans, including McConnell, John Cornyn of Texas and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah have also said they are not inclined to go through with customary courtesy meetings with the eventual Obama nominee. That galled Democrats.
"I mean the position they’re taking is, on its face, indefensible. That Sen. McConnell would say he would not even meet with a nominee for the Supreme Court suggested by President Obama?" Durbin responded Tuesday. "That is an incredible statement. It will go down in history."
Schumer predicted the GOP strategy of ignoring the nominee will not work.
"It's not just a risky strategy, it's a wrong strategy, and it's going to fail," he said. "Because his vulnerable people are not going to get off the hook. The public is demanding it. Huge groups are demanding it. We've seen data that the millennials care about this — they care more about the Supreme Court than anybody else," Schumer told reporters. "It's wrong on the merits. It's wrong on the Constitution. It’s wrong where the American people feel. And it's wrong politically."
A Pew Research Center poll released Monday showed 56 percent of Americans believe the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Obama's Supreme Court nominee. Senate Democrats are planning to capitalize on that public support, and will take to the Senate floor, and the campaign trail, to keep the issue in the forefront.
Durbin suggested the blockade could backfire on conservatives, allowing for a more liberal nominee to join the high court next year. "There are a few unanswered questions: Who's the president and is there a Democratic Senate next year?"
Several Democrats said Tuesday afternoon they would stop short of using procedural tactics to bring the Senate to a halt in response to Republican's position not to consider the nominee.
"We don’t have a strategy or plan in response for this. But we’re not going to let this go away," Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters. "McConnell is clearly hoping that this is the last day you’ll ever ask any question on this. He won't be so lucky. … We'll be discussing that nominee and reminding the American people that Republicans in the Senate refuse to do their job."
But as Democrats press Republicans to act, they must deal with their own statements in the past. GOP leaders point with glee to a speech Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave in June 1992 when he was a Delaware senator and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, saying "President [George H.W.] Bush should consider following the practice of the majority of his predecessors and not, and not name a nominee until after the November election is completed."
"I’m with Joe Biden," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Tuesday. "I just saw the clip again. I am with Joe Biden every step of the way. I’m a Biden man on this issue."
Democrats, meanwhile, were on the defensive.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., argued that despite Biden's comments, the former Judiciary chairman always held hearing and votes for lower court judges in election years. Coons said those who argue Biden's comments constitute some sort of "rule" about dealing with Supreme Court vacancies in election years, "wildly over reading that speech and ignoring the actual fact of his action."
Lindsey McPherson and Eli Yokley contributed to this report. Contact Lesniewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski. Contact Bowman at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at @bridgethbc.
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