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Why McConnell's plans for future Supreme Court vacancies matter

For the love of all that is good in the world, is Stephen Breyer listening to Mitch McConnell talk about plans for another Supreme Court blockade?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sat down with Hugh Hewitt this morning and reflected on one of the Republican's favorite subjects: judicial nominees and moving the judiciary even further to the right.

Looking back on the events of 2016 and early 2017, McConnell boasted to the conservative host "the single most consequential thing" he did during his tenure as majority leader was imposing a blockade against then-President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.

It's a difficult assertion to disagree with. After Justice Antonin Scalia's death, Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a center-left, compromise jurist -- endorsed by Senate Republicans -- to fill the vacancy, which in turn opened the door to a historic opportunity to stop the high court's drift to the right. McConnell instead decided to impose an unprecedented high-court blockade for a nearly a year, gambling that Americans might elect a Republican president and Republican Congress.

The gamble was very "consequential," indeed. McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat from one administration and handed it to another.

And since his scheme was successful, the Kentucky Republican would do it again if given the chance. When Hewitt asked this morning whether McConnell, leading a hypothetical GOP-led Senate in the next Congress, would confirm a possible Supreme Court nominee in 2024. The senator replied:

"...I think it's highly unlikely. In fact, no, I don't think either party if it controlled, if it were different from the president, would confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the middle of an election."

Last year, McConnell and Senate Republicans confirmed a Supreme Court nominee eight days before Election Day -- in the middle of an election in which millions of Americans had already cast ballots via early voting -- but he's already making clear that if given the opportunity, he'll do the opposite in response to possible nominees from President Biden.

How long a blockade would McConnell consider? When Hewitt broached the subject of a possible Supreme Court vacancy in 2023 -- the year before the national elections -- the Senate GOP leader added, "We'd have to wait and see what happens."

In other words, McConnell won't commit to filling a Supreme Court vacancy with a nominee from a Democratic White House, regardless of when that vacancy might occur. It's entirely possible, if not likely, that a Senate Republican majority would simply impose a two-year blockade on the heels of the GOP's year-long blockade in 2016.

At this point, I could rant and rave for a few paragraphs, talking about principles and hypocrisy, the dangers of McConnell's maximalist partisan tactics, and the tragic consequences of the Kentucky Republican's approach to politics.

But today, let's skip those paragraphs and instead consider a different angle: those who need to know what McConnell said this morning.

Justice Stephen Breyer, for example, is a center-left Supreme Court justice who'll turn 83 this summer. Common sense suggests his retirement should be a no-brainer, but Breyer has resisted, suggesting that he's so indifferent toward political considerations that Biden's victory will have no bearing on when he departs from the high court.

If Breyer assumes that a Republican-led Senate would gladly confirm a Biden nominee for the Supreme Court, McConnell is now telling him otherwise.

To be sure, the GOP hasn't exactly been subtle on this point. The party kept a Supreme Court seat vacant for 11 months in 2016 for purely partisan reasons, while some Senate Republicans suggested they'd keep the seat empty indefinitely until their party controlled the White House again.

But McConnell is now being even more explicit. Breyer can bury his head in the sand, but the more responsible course is to prioritize his legacy and our collective future.

Postscript: Let's also hope Democratic senators such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who claim to be deeply concerned with bipartisan comity and the Senate's cherished traditions, caught McConnell's on-air comments today, too.