U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listens during a news conference on the terror attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi Feb. 14, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. 
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John McCain points to indefinite Supreme Court blockade

Remember that vacancy on the Supreme Court that was created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February? It was never filled. The high court still only has eight members, despite President Obama nominating a compromise choice who’d been recommended by Senate Republicans.

GOP senators – sometimes with a straight face, sometimes while struggling to contain their snickering – responded by saying their blockade, unprecedented in American history, would continue until after the 2016 presidential election, at which point they’d consider doing their constitutional duty.

Those talking points, however, were written when Republicans were still confident they’d control the White House in 2017. Now that the GOP is feeling pessimistic, those attitudes are starting to change. CNN reports today, for example, on Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) comments during a radio interview this morning in Philadelphia.
McCain promised that Republicans would be “united against any Supreme Court nominee” put forth by Clinton.

“I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” McCain said. “I promise you….”
The radicalism of such a posture is hard to overstate. McCain is effectively vowing to leave his party’s Supreme Court blockade in place indefinitely – through 2020, at a minimum – regardless of whom the American electorate chooses, regardless of the qualifications of the president’s nominee.

The point of such a position isn’t subtle: as far as John McCain is concerned, a Democratic president is, by definition, an illegitimate president. Advise and consent is a nice principle in our system of government, but to hear Arizona’s senior senator put it, it’s not nearly as important as raw, scorched-earth, partisan politics.

If McCain is correct, and Republicans are in the Senate majority working alongside a Democratic president, it’s a recipe for an indefinite blockade, consequences be damned. If McCain is correct, and Republicans end up in the minority, we’ll see GOP senators filibuster Clinton’s nominee – if she wins – opening the door to Democrats changing the rules again via Nuclear Option Part II.

For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced that McCain knows what he’s talking about. He can “promise” that Republicans “will be united against any Supreme Court nominee” from Hillary Clinton, but I suspect there are some GOP senators – Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Lisa Murkowski, perhaps others – who wouldn’t be at all comfortable keeping the partisan blockade intact indefinitely.

But that doesn’t make McCain’s vow any less outrageous. As New York’s Jon Chait summarized, “The old norms held that presidents were given some deference in filling Supreme Court vacancies. Senators might object to a particular nominee on the basis of ideological extremism or lack of qualifications, but the president’s general right to appoint a member of his judicial team was considered sacrosanct. Like all the other norms holding back the exercise of power, this one has now collapsed.”

* Update: After his comments drew criticism, the senator’s office issued a statement, telling reporters, ”Sen. McCain believes you can only judge people by their record, and Hillary Clinton has a clear record of supporting liberal judicial nominees. That being said, Sen. McCain will, of course, thoroughly examine the record of any Supreme Court nominee put before the Senate and vote for or against that individual based on their qualifications, as he has done throughout his career.”

The statement did not explain why he twice promised earlier today to consider potential justices solely on partisan considerations, not on their merits. McCain’s office has also not explained why Merrick Garland’s qualifications fall short of the senator’s standards.