In the days after Antonin Scalia’s death, some Republicans expressed reservations about Mitch McConnell’s impromptu call for obstructionism, but in their first day back in the Capitol since the Supreme Court justice’s passing, the Senate majority leader shored up support for his unprecedented plan to block any candidate nominated by President Obama.
Republicans could not have been any more explicit about the blockade. After a Tuesday morning meeting with McConnell, all 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signed a letter vowing not to hold hearings on Scalia’s replacement until after the inauguration of the next president. According to the Washington Post, they explained that as opposed to the usual inaction we’ve come to expect from Congress, this time they’re doing nothing “based on constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people.”
In case that wasn’t clear enough, they explained that means there will be no confirmation hearings, no vote, not even courtesy meetings with whomever Obama nominates. “I don’t know the purpose of such a visit,” McConnell said of the routine chats between senators and judicial nominees. “I would not be inclined to take one myself.”
While they were very clear about their intent not to act, Republicans argued that vowing to ignore Obama’s theoretical nominee actually has nothing to do with partisanship. “It’s not obstruction,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, the Senate’s most senior Republican. “This is saying that this is so important, it should not be brought up in this messy time, and it ought to be brought up for the next president, whoever that may be.”
McConnell went a step further in an afternoon speech on the Senate floor, railing against Obama for promoting partisanship by doing his constitutionally mandated duty. The majority leader said Obama “has every right to nominate someone. Even if doing so will inevitably plunge our nation into another bitter and avoidable struggle, that is his right. Even if he never expects that nominee to actually be confirmed but rather to wield as an electoral cudgel, that is his right.”
However, McConnell added, Obama could also put the American people first, for once, by simply not doing his job for the next 11 months. “He also has the right to make a different choice,” he explained. “He can let the people decide and make this an actual legacy-building moment rather than just another campaign roadshow.”
A Pew poll conducted over the weekend sheds some light on the Republicans’ thinking. While the headline from the survey was that overall, a majority of the public wants the Senate to act on Obama’s nomination, there was a sharp partisan divide. Eighty percent of Democrats said the Senate should give the nominee a vote, while 66 percent of Republicans, including 71 percent of conservative Republicans, said they shouldn’t take action until Obama is out of office.
By vowing to do nothing, Senate Republicans have shielded their colleagues facing reelection in blue states from having to take a stand on Obama’s pick, who could wind up being a well-liked moderate. Hearings or meetings could potentially generate sympathy for the nominee and bolster the Democratic argument that Republicans are taking D.C. gridlock to new heights. (Democrats are already fantasizing about that prospect. According to the Post, “Democratic aides privately delighted over the prospect of cameras capturing a qualified nominee being turned away from the offices of top Republican leaders.”)
Republican leaders aren’t going to let Obama replace a conservative giant like Scalia, so there’s no way they’re going to get around being labeled obstructionists. At least this way, they control the story, and can argue that it’s Obama who’s being unreasonable — even if that makes absolutely no sense.