CAPITOL HILL - Battle lines have been drawn in the U.S. Senate over a looming Supreme Court nomination fight, with Democrats all but powerless to prevent Republicans from confirming President Donald Trump’s eventual pick ahead of midterm elections in November.
Majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, on Thursday rejected any delay in the Senate’s consideration of a nominee who, if confirmed, could cement a sharply conservative Supreme Court majority for decades. At stake is the seat held by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is retiring next month after years of serving as a swing vote on the ideologically divided court.
WATCH: Washington Girds for Battle Over Next Supreme Court Appointment
“The Senate will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy’s successor this fall,” McConnell said. “The president’s nominee should be considered fairly and not subjected to personal attacks.”
?Democrats noted that Republicans forced nearly a yearlong delay in filling the seat of former Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in early 2016, a presidential election year. Republicans refused to consider then-president Barack Obama’s nominee, effectively denying him his final high court pick.
?“If Republicans were consistent, they would wait to consider Justice Kennedy’s successor until after the midterm elections,” Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said, noting it was McConnell who, in 2016, insisted the American people “should have a voice” in deciding the next Supreme Court justice.
“Why should a midterm election be any less important than a presidential election?” Schumer asked.
McConnell countered by citing several justices, including Obama nominee Elena Kagan, who were confirmed during a midterm election year.
“To my knowledge, nobody on either side [Democrats or Republicans] has ever suggested, before yesterday, that the Senate should only process Supreme Court nominations in odd-numbered years,” the majority leader said.
Democrats are disadvantaged by being in the minority and by recent changes in the Senate’s rules eliminating the ability of minority members to block judicial nominees. Democrats themselves changed the rules in 2013, when they were in the majority, to scrap filibusters of all but Supreme Court nominees. Last year, Republicans went a step further and eliminated the filibuster for all nominees in order to facilitate confirmation of Trump’s first high court pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Unable to block a Trump nominee by themselves, Democrats are hoping moderate Republicans will join them, in particular Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins, both of whom back the preservation of abortion rights that social conservatives have long sought to curtail or eliminate.
In a statement, Murkowski promised to “carefully scrutinize” the nominee’s qualifications and “cast an independent vote”.
But any Republican votes against Trump’s high court pick could be offset by centrist Democrats campaigning for reelection in conservative-leaning states Trump won handily in 2016. Three Democrats voted to confirm Gorsuch last year.
Already, some Democrats are acknowledging the weakness of their position as the Senate’s minority party.
“Yesterday [Kennedy’s retirement announcement] was a gut punch. But more than anything else, it was a reminder that elections matter, and we need to start winning them – everywhere,” Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy tweeted.
Democrats hope the nomination battle energizes their supporters, much as social conservatives rallied behind Trump in 2016.
“Voting rights are at stake, LGBTQ [sexual minority] rights are at stake, the right to organize collectively [labor unions] is at stake,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington said. “Families across the country are paying attention, and they are going to be watching what President Trump and individual members of this United States Senate do right now.”
“Washington is already gearing up for Red vs Blue [Republican against Democrat] blood sport,” Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse tweeted. “Americans ought to aim higher because, as Justice Kennedy put it, ‘our system presumes that there are certain principles that are more important than the temper of the times.’ Let’s get to work.”