WASHINGTON >> Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday ruled out any hearing for President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, insisting that the choice rests with the president’s successor.
“Because our decision is based on constitutional principle and born of a necessity to protect the will of the American people, this committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next president is sworn in on January 20, 2017,” the panel’s GOP members said in a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Even the most divisive nominees for the high court have received a hearing before the Judiciary Committee, and the election-year decision to deny such a session is a sharp break with the Senate’s traditional “advise and consent” role. A committee review and a hearing is the first step in the process.
The GOP action is certain to have repercussions, not only in the presidential race but congressional contests where vulnerable Senate incumbents in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire face tough Democratic challengers.
At least one of those senators, Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, has suggested holding hearings, putting him at odds with fellow Republicans.
GOP members of the committee met with McConnell in a closed-door session and emerged with a simple message: “No hearing, no vote,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“We believe the American people need to decide who is going to make this appointment rather than a lame-duck president,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican and like Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Hearings would be “a waste of time,” added Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee are the most high profile in the Senate and any session is certain to be a spectacle. Among the members of the panel is Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz, and the Texas senator has vowed to block any nominee.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., when asked about hearings, said, “Oh why even put that ball on the field? All you’re going to do is fumble it. Let the people decide.”
As a rationale for their decision, Republicans pointed to a 1992 speech by Vice President Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, in which Biden said that in a presidential election year the Senate should “not consider holding hearings until after the election.”
“Instead, it would be our pragmatic conclusion that once the political season is under way, and it is, action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over,” said Biden, then the Delaware senator.
As it turned out, there was no opening on the court that year.
Earlier in the day, McConnell said his party won’t permit a vote on any Supreme Court nominee submitted by Obama and will instead “revisit the matter” after the presidential election in November.
“Presidents have a right to nominate just as the Senate has its constitutional right to provide or withhold consent,” the majority leader said in a speech on the Senate floor. “In this case, the Senate will withhold it.”
Scalia’s unexpected Feb. 13 death ignited a major fight in Washington over whether Obama should be able to replace him in a presidential election year. McConnell offered one of the first salvos; Scalia had only been dead for a few hours when McConnell announced that he would oppose replacing him before the election.
But McConnell’s remarks Tuesday were his first explicit statement that he would oppose a Senate vote.
McConnell was at the center of a battle a decade ago over Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees of President George W. Bush and, after Democrats took over the chamber in 2007, repeatedly said Bush’s judges deserved up or down votes.
Top Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the GOP’s promised obstruction was unprecedented.
“During my time on the committee, we have never refused to send a Supreme Court nominee to the full Senate for a confirmation vote, even when the majority of the committee opposed the nomination,” Leahy said. “And once reported to the full Senate, every Supreme Court nominee has received an up or down confirmation vote during my more than four decades in the Senate.”