Consider today the opening salvo in what will be the defining congressional issue of 2016 — the fight over President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court to replace Antonin Scalia.
Democrats are saying that it’s imperative an Obama nominee be seated on the Supreme Court. They claim that, since there are over 300 days left in the Obama administration, the court should not be vacated for such a long time. They say that anything less is GOP obstruction.
Right now the fight is really within the Republican Party. There are some senators, such as Roy Blunt of Missouri, Dean Heller of Nevada and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, that have hinted they would like to see Obama’s nominee at least get a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
While senators Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, say no hearing and no vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is meeting with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa and the GOP members of that committee on Tuesday to figure out a way forward on this issue.
Here’s the conundrum…
If Republicans allow the nominee to get a hearing, there’s a good chance that the nominee will have previously had large scale GOP support.
That person will have hours in front of the TV cameras answering questions from the GOP. They’ll probably prove they are qualified and perform well because the president will likely nominate somebody who has already faced a Judicial Committee hearing.
This also means the fight play would play out a lot more publicly than if Republicans were just to say no hearing and no vote.
If Republicans go that route, and say no hearing and no vote, then they look like they’re really obstructing. It’s unprecedented for a qualified Supreme Court nominee to not even get a hearing.
Robert Bork, a controversial pick of former president Ronald Reagan, got a hearing and his answers there before the cameras ultimately led to his downfall.If Obama selects somebody who represents a group of voters that is part of the Democratic coalition — African Americans or Asian Americans — and the GOP won’t even give that person a hearing, that could prove costly in minority rich states like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin where there are vulnerable GOP seats.
This is a difficult decision for McConnell and one that could split the Senate GOP Conference.
Whatever he decides, he’ll need to work to control the fallout within his caucus.
So what are some possible scenarios?
Scenario 1: Obama could nominate someone who gets a hearing, is confirmed by the Senate and is seated on the court.
The chances of this happening are about 1 percent. McConnell views this fight as the most important he has taken up as Majority Leader. If he allowed a nominee to be seated on the Court, thus tilting it liberal, the hard right of the GOP would literally explode.
Scenario 2: Obama could nominate someone who gets a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, get a committee vote but doesn’t get a floor vote.
This could very well happen. It’s not uncommon for nominated judges to receive a hearing by the committee, even get passed out of the committee and then not get a Senate vote.
In fact there’s a pretty sizable backlog right now of nominees to lower federal courts that haven’t gotten a vote.
This is where the GOP could stop a nominee and not let them get out of the committee. The nomination then dies and the fight totally wraps into 2016 presidential politics.
Scenario 3: Obama could nominate someone who gets a hearing, but no committee vote and thus no Senate floor vote.
There really is no precedent for this scenario but with the way Congress works these days—who knows?
The thinking is that if a nominee were to get a hearing, the Senate Judiciary Committee would have to vote to advance that nominee. Better to kill them in committee rather than not even take a vote.
Scenario 4: Obama nominates someone who gets no hearing and no vote.
This is what the hard right is advocating for, especially the influential conservative group Heritage Action.
Hill aides tell NBC News that Sen. McConnell might not want to do this but is willing to see it through.
It would take some fortitude to do this, especially if Obama nominated somebody like Attorney General Loretta Lynch — African-American with previous GOP Senate support and a law and order background.
It really might come down to giving an Obama nominee a Judiciary Committee hearing and then voting them down or no not having a hearing or a vote.