Dems Plan To Make Republicans Pay For Blockading The Supreme Court

Or at least shame Mitch McConnell into holding nomination hearings.

18/02/2016 9:02 PM AEDT | Updated 19/02/2016 3:40 AM AEDT
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of (R-Ky.) says the Senate shouldn't hold hearings on  a new Supreme Court nominee.

WASHINGTON -- If shame is the only real tool that President Barack Obama has to force the U.S. Senate to consider a Supreme Court nomination in his final year, let the shames begin.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared over the weekend -- within hours of the news that Justice Antonin Scalia had died -- that the Senate should not even hold hearings on a replacement.

Republicans certainly have the power to do nothing, and the minority party Democrats can't really do much about that under the rules of the Senate, even though the Constitution says the Senate is supposed to offer the president advice and consent on nominations.

That leaves Democrats with one option: Make the case to the public. And there are many ways to do that.

Democrats already have started by launching verbal barrages at McConnell. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Reid's likely successor, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), both held events on Wednesday, where they hammered the GOP leader for shirking his duties. McConnell will have to back down, both said.

"I think my Republican counterpart, McConnell, has made a terrible mistake by saying that he is going to ignore the president," Reid told reporters in Nevada.

He echoed Schumer in predicting McConnell will have to back down. "They’re going to cave in," Reid said. "I think the president’s going to give us a nominee that’s a good one and I think they’re going to have to hold hearings and have a vote."

Alex Wong via Getty Images
Senate Democratic leaders say Mitch McConnell will be forced to back down and hold hearings for a new Supreme Court justice.

A prediction is all well and good, but how does shame make it come true?

From McConnell's perspective, Republicans may not have won the White House in recent elections, but repeated attacks by Democrats over government shutdowns and Washington dysfunction haven't stopped the GOP from taking control of both chambers of Congress. They've managed that because Republican voters tend to be more motivated than Democrats, and vote in greater numbers in non-presidential election years.

"The reality is they’ve controlled Congress since 2010 while being as obstructionist as possible," said Julian Zelizer, a congressional scholar and Princeton politics professor.

Zelizer said the big question for McConnell is whether the majority leader thinks other voters will punish his party -- not nationally in the White House contest, but in Senate and House races.

"I think he’s betting not," Zelizer said.

Aside from talking about Republican obstruction, Democrats are already targeting some of those races in swing states. Arizona Sen. John McCain's (R) likely Democratic opponent in November, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, has already used the issue against him.

And activist groups on the left of the spectrum have begun online campaigns aimed at raising pressure on vulnerable Republicans, including petitions and phone campaigns.

According to them, it's resonating.

“Our organization and others have seen nearly unprecedented grassroots energy and public outcry as Republicans threaten to work against the Constitution and block any Supreme Court nominee no matter how qualified," said Adam Green, a founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "Regular people who live busy lives and haven’t taken political action for months or years are re-engaging at this moment."

One thing in McConnell's favor is the fact that most people don't usually pay attention to Washington nomination fights. And this year features a dramatic presidential race to keep people's attention.

But Zelizer could foresee those two forces coming together in a way that actually makes it harder for McConnell to sit on his thumbs.

"Most nominations, Americans don’t follow, but the Supreme Court is iconic," Zelizer said. "If there are news stories over Obama not even being able to get his nominee to move forward, more Democratic voters will be angry."

News stories are guaranteed, and all the White House will really have to do is roll out a well-qualified nominee to ensure questions start getting asked of Republicans, especially in swing states. 

"Democrats are going to go into those states, and instantly it will be part of the primaries," Zelizer said.

And the difficulty for Republicans, especially if a hardliner presidential candidate is at the top of the ticket, will be to convince their base that they are sufficiently anti-Obama, and then convince the rest of the voters they aren't wing nuts.

That's where McConnell could begin to get into trouble.

"It’s going to be tied into an argument that this Republican Party is way too far to the right for the country," Zelizer said. "That’s where McConnell's bet might not work out as well as he thinks."

There is some evidence that Republicans are not all comfortable with McConnell's stance on stalling a Scalia replacement.

A small but growing number have said the Senate should hold hearings, even if it doesn't ultimately approve a nominee. 

Perhaps the most important senator to keep an eye on is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Grassley initially stuck to McConnell's line, saying Saturday that his committee should wait until after the elections to hold hearings. But by Tuesday, he had softened his stance, saying he'd wait to see a nominee before making a decision.

Grassley represents a purple state, where Democrats have won before. And while Grassley isn't on anyone's endangered list, there are several potential high-profile challengers, including two former governors, who could be enticed into the contest if Grassley suddenly looks vulnerable.

And that's the sort of pressure that Democrats think will push McConnell to relent.

"Grassroots voices are going to be the key in getting Sen. McConnell to back off, and let the Senate do its job," said Schumer. "I'm urging people to speak out, and speak out strongly."

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