CAPITOL HILL —
However Republican lawmakers view their party's chances of winning the White House, a key senator is speaking in terms that would seem to presume Democrat Hillary Clinton will become America's next president.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley told Iowa constituents the panel could consider President Barack Obama's long-stalled Supreme Court nominee after the November elections in what is known as Congress' lame duck session.
"I don't feel that I could stand in the way of that," Grassley said earlier this week, stipulating that confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, a federal appellate judge, would only be held if enough Republicans join Democrats so there is majority support to proceed.
For months, Grassley and other top Republicans insisted that the next president, to be sworn in January 20, should nominate the successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Obama tapped Garland in March, but the nomination has been ignored by the Republican-led Senate.The Supreme Court has operated with eight justices since, deadlocking 4-4 on several major decisions.
Political analysts say Republicans hoped a new Republican president would nominate a right-of-center judge to replace arch-conservative Scalia and preserve the high court's ideological center of gravity, a prospect that seems remote as Republican Donald Trump consistently trails Clinton in national polls and many battleground states.
"Hillary Clinton's substantial lead in the race for the White House may be encouraging Senate Republicans to reconsider their resolute opposition to Judge Garland's nomination for the Supreme Court," said Sarah Binder of the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
"It's certainly possible that a Clinton nominee could prove far more liberal than the moderate Garland, and my hunch is that some softening of GOP opposition to Garland could reflect that calculation."
Grassley, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others have insisted that their opposition to considering a Supreme Court nominee during the final year of the Obama presidency is a matter of precedent and principle. They argued the process should not go forward in the heat of an election year, and that waiting would allow the American people to register their voice on the matter at the ballot box.
Only two Republican senators, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Susan Collins of Maine, bucked their party and called for hearing and a vote on the Garland nomination.
"It would be ironic if the next president happens to be a Democrat and chooses someone who is far to Judge Garland's left," Collins said after meeting with Garland in April.
Others have been resolute in opposing Garland.
"This person will not be confirmed," declared Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas shortly after Obama nominated Garland."It's not going to happen."
"The GOP position, that only the next president can fill a Supreme Court vacancy created during a presidential election year, was more politics than principle," Binder said."So we shouldn't be surprised to see some reconsideration of that position as the political context changes."
As committee chairman, Grassley can call for confirmation hearings if he chooses.But McConnell holds the key to a final vote by the full Senate, and the majority leader has yet to say a vote this year is possible.
"McConnell seemed to close the door to considering any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court, so Scalia's seat might yet still be vacant when the next president is sworn in in late January," Binder said.
Should Clinton win, Senate Democrats would face a choice, continue advocating for Garland's confirmation or hope that Clinton might nominate a younger, more liberal jurist.
"That's a tough call," Binder said. "Garland has strong defenders among Senate Democrats.But I also think that they'll likely to defer to Clinton on the nomination if she wins in November."
"My hunch is that Democrats' clearest priority is to put a Democratic appointee into that lifetime position to anchor the shift the center of the court to the left, no matter how slight the shift," she added.