The vow by Senate Republicans to not vote on any nominee President Obama picks to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia represents a huge gamble that could have major consequences for the GOP in the 2016 presidential election and on Capitol Hill next year.
The announcement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), made roughly an hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, surprised observers on both sides of the political aisle.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell said in a statement.
Delaying such an important decision, which could influence the highest court in the land for generations, is in keeping with the Kentucky lawmaker’s general strategy: hold onto the Republican majority in the Senate by avoiding controversial votes that could imperil GOP incumbents in 2016.
But abandoning the chamber’s mission to advise and consent is fraught with political risks for McConnell and his colleagues, and the avoidance of a vote could create its own controversy.
If the conflict stretches on, Democrats will once again be able to paint Republicans as the party of “no,” with zero interest in governing.
“The idea that Republicans want to deny the president of the United States his basic constitutional right is beyond my comprehension,” Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said on Face the Nation. He said the “main leverage” his party has is “rallying the American people.”
Coming out so swiftly on the matter could give Obama the upper hand in the election-year fight. It’s unclear how Republicans will be able to explain their intransigence if Obama nominates a moderate — someone who would be confirmable if the White House had a good relationship with Congress – and they continue to sit on their hands.
The president has said he would nominate someone in “due time,” and it’s likely that he wants to spare his successor – Democrat or Republican – from being handicapped with a major political fight over the court within his or her first 100 days in office.
Even if McConnell does buckle to public pressure and decide to hold hearings on a nominee, it could add to the increasingly bitter fight with hard-right members like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).
On Sunday the presidential contender vowed to filibuster any Obama nominee to replace Scalia.
“This should be a decision for the people,” he said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday. “Let the election decide. If the Democrats want to replace [Scalia], they need to win the election. But I don’t think the American people want a court that will strip our religious liberties. I don’t think the American people want a court that will mandate unlimited abortions on demand, partial-birth abortion with taxpayer funding and no parental notification, and I don’t think the American people want a court that will write the Second Amendment out of the Constitution.”
Asked whether he would filibuster Obama’s choice, Cruz said: "Absolutely.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), another White House hopeful, said the president can nominate whomever he wants, but "it's pretty clear" that the Senate isn’t going to act.
"We're not moving forward on it, period," he said during on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt tapped into the mood of many of his fellow conservatives when he tweeted he’d rather see the Democrats take back the Senate because of a Supreme Court brawl than not have one at all.
“I'd rather lose the Senate majority with a fight than SCOTUS w/o one. #NoHearingsNoVotes,” he said.
I'd rather lose the Senate majority with a fight than SCOTUS w/o one. #NoHearingsNoVotes— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) February 14, 2016
Ohio Governor John Kasich, another 2016 contender, on Sunday said that if he were in Obama’s shoes, he’d throw political caution into the wind and let it ride.
“When you have that kind of division, it's really hard to get this done. If I were president of the United States, you know, and I could keep the Congress together, of course I would send somebody,” he said during an interview on ABC.