WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump won a crucial victory Tuesday in the battle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy caused by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Senate Republicans largely coalesced around a goal of rapidly confirming a yet-to-be-named nominee, possibly before the November presidential election.
Just four days after Ginsburg’s death, wavering Senate Republicans have mostly lined up behind Trump’s desire to move quickly on the nominee he intends to name Saturday – underscoring the president’s tight grip on the party even as he faces a challenging path to reelection in most of the nation’s battleground states.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has had a combative relationship with Trump for years, became the latest lawmaker to embrace the president’s desire to move forward with a confirmation in an election year, paving the way for conservatives to expand their control of the Supreme Court and dashing Democratic hopes of slowing the process down.
“I intend to follow the Constitution and precedent in considering the president’s nominee,” Romney announced Tuesday, joining several other centrist Republicans. “If the nominee reaches the Senate floor, I intend to vote based upon their qualifications.”
Republican leaders have not presented a timeline for holding a vote to fill the vacancy, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued there is plenty of time to consider a nominee before the Nov. 3 election. Trump echoed that sentiment this week, asserting that “there’s really a lot of time” between now and the presidential election.
“Sen. Romney is recognizing what any of us who take a clear-eyed look at precedent recognizes,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Tuesday. “The precedent is on our side here.”
During a Tuesday meeting of Republican senators, some lawmakers told their colleagues that they preferred to push the nomination through before the election.
Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., told reporters he and several other Republican senators said “there were too many variables post-election that would make it complicated, so I’m going to be vocally for getting this done, vetted properly, and getting it done before the election.”
McConnell left the timing of a confirmation to be determined after it went through committee, telling reporters “when the nomination comes out of committee, I’ll decide when and how to proceed.”
Democrats acknowledged they can do little to delay the vote. Asked Tuesday whether Democrats could obstruct the process, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told reporters that Democrats could appeal to Republicans’ “sense of honesty and ethics, and that’s basically it,” and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told reporters, “You can slow things down, but you can’t stop them.”
“I’ve been around here a few years,” he said. “You can slow things down but you can’t stop them. And there comes a point, we use whatever tools we have available, but ultimately there will be a vote,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attempted to pass a nonbinding resolution on the Senate floor Tuesday to recognize Ginsburg’s service and ask the Senate to answer her dying wish that the seat not be filled until after the election, but Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blocked its passage, arguing the addition of language about Ginsburg’s wishes made it a “partisan resolution.”
Asked about Ginsburg’s request for the next president to pick her replacement, McConnell told reporters Tuesday, “I prefer another thing she said recently, which was she thought the number of the Supreme Court ought to be nine.”
Some Democrats have floated the possibility of impeaching Trump or top administration officials to delay the confirmation proceedings, though Senate rules allow the body to conduct impeachment proceedings and its regular business on the same calendar days. Asked on Sunday if she would consider impeaching Trump or Attorney General William Barr to delay the process and prevent the Senate from acting on the nomination, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told ABC News “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos “we have our options.”
Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., seemed to dismiss the option of impeachment, telling reporters at a Tuesday press conference, “At the current moment we’re looking forward toward the election … and the American people will ultimately make the decision as to whether Trump and his corrupt administration should be held accountable.”
Most Republicans have sprinted away from concerns they raised four years ago about allowing then-President Barack Obama to name Judge Merrick Garland to the court in an election year, giving Democrats a chance to charge hypocrisy but leaving them powerless to do much about it. In addition to Romney, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is retiring this year, and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who faces a tough election, have indicated a willingness to move expeditiously toward approving Trump’s pick.
Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have said they opposed moving forward to fill the vacancy before the election.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning they can lose only four votes on a nomination if all Democrats voted against it. Barring a major surprise, the announcements by Alexander and Romney appear to give Trump the votes he needs.
Democrats accused Romney of hypocrisy for voting to impeach Trump while agreeing to move forward on his Supreme Court nominee. Durbin told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday that Romney showed “exceptional courage” during the impeachment vote but was “disappointed he came to this conclusion” on the Supreme Court nominee.
Assuming the process goes smoothly – a big assumption in confirmation fights – Republicans expressed optimism that they could move a nominee before the election, allowing Trump to name a third justice and swing the court to the right, threatening to upend abortion cases conservatives and liberals have fought over for generations.
Romney called it appropriate for a “nation which is, if you will, center-right, to have a court which reflects center-right points of view, which again are not changing the law from what it states, but instead following the law and following the Constitution.”
The rapid falling in line among senators demonstrated the power not only of Trump’s sway over the party, but also the importance of the issue. Many conservative Republicans were willing to look past Trump’s pugnacious style in order to embrace his promise of shifting the federal judiciary to the right, a promise he has honored.
“We’ve got the votes to confirm Justice Ginsburg’s replacement before the election. We’re going to move forward in the committee,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told FOX News this week. “We’re going to move the nomination out of the committee to the floor of the United States Senate so that we can vote before the election. That’s the constitutional process.”
Trump has said he is considering five women for the seat. He met Monday with Indiana-based appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett, considered a front-runner for the job, and is expected to interview appeals court judge Barbara Lagoa of Florida this week.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday that “it would be a good idea for us to move forward” on a vote before the Nov. 3 election, though the timing was ultimately up to McConnell.
Waiting until after the election could prove a dicey proposition for Republicans. Early polling suggests a majority of likely voters said Trump should not be able to fill the Supreme Court vacancy if he loses the election in November.
A little over half of likely voters in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin said Trump should not fill the seat if he lost, according to a CNBC and Change Research poll. Nationally, 57% of likely voters nationally held that same opinion.
Ginsburg to lie in state:Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to lie in state at US Capitol Friday after two days at Supreme Court
Schumer, on Tuesday said McConnell had “defiled the Senate like no one in this generation and Leader McConnell may very well destroy it.”
Contributing: Sarah Elbeshbishi, David Jackson