If we were to pretend American politics operated by traditional rules, we’d have some basic expectations about what policymakers would do in the event of a Supreme Court vacancy. A sitting president would reach out to Senate leaders, some names would be floated as part of a conversation, and a nominee would be put forward and considered.
With this in mind, President Obama hosted an entirely predictable gathering in the Oval Office earlier today. Vice President Biden was there, along with the top Senate leaders from each party, and the top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee from each party.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today, “The president … gave everyone in the room, Democrats and Republicans, the opportunity to put forward their own suggestions for potential Supreme Court nominees. The president didn’t guarantee that he would choose that person, but the president did indicate that he would take seriously any recommendations that either Democrats or Republicans had to put forward.”
It all sounds quite routine – or what would be routine under normal American circumstances. But as it turns out, this Oval Office meeting was actually a reminder about just how abnormal the times really are. The New York Times, quoting one of the gathering’s participants, said today’s discussion was “very short.”
Leaving the meeting, [Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid] suggested that the Republicans appear to be waiting for Donald Trump to be in the White House. “There wasn’t much said at the meeting,” Mr. Reid said.
The Hill also quoted Reid saying in reference to the GOP senators, “They were adamant. They said, ‘No, we’re not going to do this at all.’” Referring to Democrats, Reid added, “All we want them to do is to fulfill their constitutional duty, and at this stage, they are deciding not to do that.”
It wasn’t that Democrats were cool to the GOP’s ideas for possible nominees. Rather, Republicans simply said there should be no nominee – and if one exists, he or she will be ignored, regardless of qualifications or merit.
That this was the expected outcome of the meeting doesn’t make it any less scandalous. The political world’s collective assumptions about how this is likely to play out shouldn’t obscure the fact that Senate Republicans are orchestrating a Supreme Court blockade unlike anything seen in the American tradition.
They are doing so without a defense or a coherent explanation, ignoring the Constitution and traditional norms in the process.
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this morning that he and his party will “observe the ‘Biden Rule,’” in reference to a 1992 speech then-Sen. Joe Biden delivered about hypothetical high-court vacancies.
Under the circumstances, it seems quite likely that McConnell knows he’s brazenly lying. There is no such thing as the “Biden Rule,” and if there were, it wouldn’t justify the current obstructionism. On the contrary, in his 1992 remarks, Biden, describing the possibility of a Supreme Court vacancy that did not exist at the time, explicitly said that if the then-Republican president “consults and cooperates with the Senate, or moderates his selections absent consultation, then his nominees may enjoy my support as did Justices Kennedy and Souter.”
If McConnell wants to believe this established a “rule” that must be honored, then today’s Senate Republicans will have to meet, consider, and vote on President Obama’s nominee – steps McConnell has vowed not to take.