While introducing Judge Merrick Garland as his Supreme Court nominee, President Obama noted the political conditions on Capitol Hill. “I have fulfilled my constitutional duty,” the president said. “Now it’s time for the Senate to do theirs.” He added, “I simply ask Republicans in the Senate to give him a fair hearing and then an up or down vote.”
Obama may ask, but Republicans are already answering in a way the White House probably won’t like. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for example, issued a four-paragraph written statement that made no reference to the nominee himself.
“Today the President has exercised his constitutional authority. A majority of the Senate has decided to fulfill its constitutional role of advice and consent by withholding support for the nomination during a presidential election year. […]“A lifetime appointment that could dramatically impact individual freedoms and change the direction of the court for at least a generation is too important to get bogged down in politics. The American people shouldn’t be denied a voice.”
For the record, the American people were the ones who elected President Obama (twice). Voters have already had our say in this process.
Regardless, Grassley’s reaction to this morning’s announcement was in line with his party’s. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell (R-Ky.), for example, still supports his unprecedented blockade. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) all said filling the current high court vacancy must be delayed until 2017.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said she’d extend Garland the courtesy of a one-on-one meeting, but the New Hampshire Republican nevertheless believes the Senate “should not move forward” with the confirmation process until after President Obama leaves office. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said roughly the same thing. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said he’d consider Garland, but only if some other president nominates him, which is a little weird, even by congressional standards.
At one point this morning, McConnell went so far as to say, “It seems clear that President Obama made this nomination not with the intent of seeing the nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize for purposes of the election” – which is so plainly bonkers, I’m surprised McConnell was willing to say this out loud.
It’s worth stepping back for a moment to appreciate just how extraordinarily crazy all of this is. In the month since Antonin Scalia’s death, Senate Republicans have been unusually irresponsible, even for them, announcing they would hold no hearings and no votes on Obama’s nominee, regardless of who’s chosen. Despite GOP talking points about “tradition,” such a blockade has never even been attempted in American history.
So, the president went out of his way to offer Republicans a compromise, nominating a moderate, inoffensive, broadly respected, 63-year-old white guy. As of now, the GOP Senate majority just doesn’t care.
Regular readers are probably familiar with a thesis I’ve written about on several occasions referring to the self-defeating nature of Republican tactics. Whenever President Obama presents any idea or nominee, the GOP’s first instinct – attack, reject, and oppose, regardless of merit – has a bad habit of backfiring. On a variety of issues – immigration, health care, the environment – Republicans have had opportunities to advance their own goals and priorities through compromise, but they can’t look past their own knee-jerk instincts to take advantage.
It’s an example of GOP lawmakers occasionally being their own worst enemy: through self-defeating opposition to compromise, Republicans miss more favorable outcomes, from their own perspective.
And on the Supreme Court, they appear to be making the same mistake all over again. With Donald Trump well positioned to win the Republican presidential nomination, there’s a reasonably good chance Obama will have a Democratic successor – who quite possibly will be working with a Democratic Senate majority – who probably won’t offer the Senate GOP a 63-year-old moderate next year.
As we talked about last week, don’t be too surprised if, about a year from now, Republican senators start quietly telling one another, “We probably should’ve accepted Obama’s nominee.”
Postscript: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who just last week explicitly urged Obama to nominate Garland, said in a statement this morning that Garland’s nomination “doesn’t in any way change current circumstances” – which is to say, Hatch still supports his party’s blockade.
However, Hatch also added this morning, “I’d probably be open to resolving this in the lame duck.” Keep a very close eye on this, because it may prove to be incredibly important. As things stand, Senate Republicans don’t intend to reject Garland, so much as they plan to ignore him. His nomination won’t be defeated; it’ll simply wither on the vine.
But if Republicans fare poorly in November’s elections, don’t be too surprised if GOP senators declare, “Well, now that voters have had their say, we’re prepared to confirm Garland after all.”
File this away for future reference.