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Obama Learns What You Sow in the Senate, You Reap in the White House

Alito faced a contentious confirmation hearing in 2006. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If elected president, Republican Sens. Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio probably won’t keep much more more than the doorknobs from the current White House. But they could take away one valuable lesson from President Barack Obama: What you sow in the Senate, you’ll reap in the Oval Office.  

Obama has the opportunity to change the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation by nominating his third associate justice over his eight years in office. But after Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly declared , “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”  

The president and his party have a right to be frustrated, considering Obama’s term doesn’t end for another 11 months. But Obama ceded some of the moral high ground when he filibustered one of President George W. Bush’s nominees during his time in the Senate.  

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest announced Obama regretted filibustering now-Associate Justice Samuel Alito in 2006, but tried to split hairs on the difference in order to keep the pressure on the Republicans.  

"What the president regrets is that Senate Democrats didn't focus more on making an effective public case about those substantive objections," Earnest said, referring to Alito’s rulings as a lower court judge. "Instead, some Democrats engaged in a process of throwing sand in the gears of the confirmation process. And that's an approach that the president regrets."  

Earnest and others argue that Republicans’ apparent unwillingness to give an Obama nominee a hearing and vote on the floor is unprecedented. But it’s not difficult to see how Democrats would have acted the same way in early 2006, if they had been in the majority and had their eyes Bush’s job approval rating, which was trending steadily downward toward the midterm elections.  

But this is not the first time Obama had a change of heart from the Senate to the Oval Office.  

Three years ago, President Obama implored congressional Republicans to raise the debt limit. And, once again, his high ground wasn’t particularly firm after voting against the debt ceiling and being so defiant about the proposal as a senator.  

“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. government can’t pay its own bills. ... I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit,” Obama said in 2006 .  

Less than seven years later as president, Obama admitted it was a “political vote” but instructed lawmakers not to take the same course of action.  

“That was just an example of a new Senator, you know, making what is a political vote, as opposed to doing what was important for the country. And I’m the first one to acknowledge it,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.  

"As President, you start realizing, ‘You know what? We can’t play around with this stuff. This is the full faith in credit of the United States,’” Obama added.  

It’s easy for Cruz and Rubio to make the passionate case for checks and balances, but if one of them gets elected and Democrats retake all or part of Congress, neither of them should be surprised if the opposition party delights in grinding the Republican president’s agenda to a halt.  

Gonzales can be reached at nathangonzales@rollcall.com or follow him on Twitter at @nathanlgonzales.

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