U.S. Senate

Senate Backs Into Corner on Court Nominee

McConnell's refusal even to meet an Obama nominee may annoy swing voters.

No successor.

Photographer: Aude Guerrucci - Pool/Getty Images)

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee pledged on Tuesday to refuse to hold hearings on Barack Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court -- before he has even nominated anyone. And Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn piled it on when said they would refuse to meet with anyone the president selects.

Yes, the Republicans had already said within minutes of learning of Justice Antonin Scalia's death that they would resist any Obama nomination. But to formally say in writing that they will hold no hearings -- something never done before for a Supreme Court nomination -- or even meet with a nominee is a further escalation.  

They are within their rights as senators to do this. But there’s no justification for a yearlong blockade other than “we can and we will.” They take a position that was already difficult to defend to anyone besides the most loyal Republican voters and make it even harder to justify.

Had a vacancy on the court opened up six months from now, refusing to vote on a nominee would have been a fairly reasonable option. Had the vacancy appeared six months ago, refusing to consider a nomination would have been outrageous. Refusing to act on one made in February of an election year is irresponsible. It isn't the worst thing a party has ever done. It doesn't qualify as a constitutional crisis. But it violates how the political system has usually worked.

Tuesday's pronouncements show how little maneuvering room Republican senators believe they have. They can't even pretend to be open-minded about Obama's pick. Yet the Senate leaders' fear of being labeled moderate squishes by Ted Cruz and radical conservatives is forcing them into actions that risk harming them personally and the party as a whole. 

The senators' actions could be a tactic to take some heat off Republicans in tough re-election bids. A senator like Mark Kirk of Illinois could appear reasonable by comparison merely by showing normal courtesy to the president by meeting with a nominee. 

Moreover, as John Patty and Tom Clark point out at Mischiefs of Faction, the Republicans' strategy protects senators from having to vote on any nominee -- valuable in case Obama can find someone who is popular with general-election swing voters but unpopular among Republicans.

For most Republican politicians, however, the aim is to avoid allowing any appearance of any distance between them and the most conservative members of the party.

It shouldn't be hard for Obama to dramatize how unreasonable Republican senators are being. He might even borrow a tactic from President Bartlet on "The West Wing": March up to Capitol Hill with his nominee (and the press), knock on the door of the Senate majority leader and ask for a meeting. 

The "neutral" press and the public have tended to blame both sides in Washington for gridlock. But the more the Republicans cement their reputation as unreasonably obstructionist, the more they will appear at fault in future showdowns. And that weakens their bargaining position.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.