Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday quickly laid out the game plan for confirming a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, wasting no time in stating they intended to confirm a new justice before the fall elections and flatly claiming there was literally nothing Democrats could do to delay that.
“The Senate stands ready to fulfill its constitutional role by offering advice and consent on President Trump’s nominee to fill this vacancy. We will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy’s successor this fall,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor just minutes after the news of Kennedy’s retirement broke.
The swiftness of the announcement of the vote timing called to mind McConnell’s decision shortly after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016 that it did not matter whom President Barack Obama nominated, no hearings would take place until Obama’s successor was in office. Obama nominated Merrick G. Garland anyway, who never got a hearing. Donald Trump won the election, and the next year he nominated Neil Gorsuch, whom the Senate confirmed after nixing the last of any significant procedural hurdles senators could use to delay or halt a judicial nominee.
Watch: McConnell Vows Vote on Kennedy Successor 'This Fall'
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said resistance to the nominee by Democrats, or others, would be futile.
“They can’t block it. There used not to be filibusters of judges until the George W. Bush presidency, and now all the filibuster activity and precedents have been overruled, so we are looking at 51 to confirm or 50 plus the vice president. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to get this done,” Cornyn said shortly after the news broke.
Such declarations were unlikely to sit well with Democrats, who were reminded of McConnell’s decision to hold open the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia for more than a year until after the 2016 election in a series of 5-4 decisions by the high court this year.
“The American people will decide the majority in the United States Senate. Following the tortured logic of Mitch McConnell, let’s let the American people speak,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer lay down his own marker with floor comments, saying there should be no nominee until after the election, which could change majority control of the Senate.
Watch: Schumer Says Supreme Court Vacancy Shouldn't Be Considered in Election Year
“Our Republican colleagues in the Senate should follow the rule they set in 2016, not to consider a Supreme Court Justice in an election year. Sen. McConnell would tell anyone who listened that the Senate had the right to advise and consent, and that was every bit as important as the president’s right to nominate. Millions of people are just months away from determining the senators who should vote to confirm or reject the president’s nominee, and their voices deserve to be heard then. Anything but that would be the absolute height of hypocrisy,” he said.
The Democratic leadership team all seemed in sync. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 ranked Democrat, sang from the same hymnal.
“I think as Sen. Mcconnell has said in the past, we should hear what the voters have to say,” she said.
Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, who has pushed to make it easier for the chamber to confirm presidential nominees, begged to differ.
“That was a presidential election year, so it's very, very different,” he said about the so-called McConnell Rule for holding open court seats. “We’re not in a presidential election year. Last time it was the year that a new president is being elected.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal said regardless, the minority party would perform its due diligence.
“We will have a voice and vote, for sure. We will be looking at the qualifications, the personal background of any nominee. That research will be immensely important, and so will be the questions that we ask, as they were with Justice Gorsuch, even though we disagreed with the result,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley released a statement saying he expected a nomination soon and for hearing to begin shortly after.
“I expect the President will soon nominate someone for the Senate to consider. I encourage the President to choose a nominee with the credentials, intellect and commitment to the rule of law necessary to serve on the Supreme Court. I look forward to having the nominee before us in the Senate Judiciary Committee for his or her hearing in the weeks ahead,” the Iowa Republican said.
Underscoring the stakes for both sides, Sen. Benjamin J. Cardin rattled off a series of high-profile high court decisions made in the wake of Gorsuch’s confirmation.
“We just had the Muslim ban, we had the collective bargaining rights of government workers. ... I don’t know what cases they’re going to take, but we know that there are a lot of fundamental issues that have been raised by the Trump administration. We want a Supreme Court that’s going to be an independent court. If President Trump looks to put somebody on the Court that will be just to ratify what he wants to do in office, that’s something that should concern every member of the United States Senate, Democrat and Republican,” the Maryland Democrat said.
At the White House, the president said his search for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee will “begin immediately” and he intends to select his pick from a list of over 20 candidates the White House released last year.
“It will be somebody from that list,” he told reporters in the Oval Office. “Hopefully we will pick someone who is just as outstanding” as the retiring Justice Kennedy, he added.
The president noted he met with Kennedy for about a half hour Wednesday, with the associate justice bringing a letter to Trump inform him of his decision. Trump asked Kennedy for his recommendation on a nominee, but the president did not share any Kennedy suggestions.
Asked if he would consider withholding a Supreme Court nominee until the shape of the new Congress is known in November, Trump said: “I haven’t really thought about that. I think you want to go as quickly as possible.”
Jeremey Dillon, Paul Krawzak, Niels Lesniewski, Ryan McCrimmon and Ed Pesce contributed to this story.