Wednesday, February 17, 2016

POLITICS - Key Republicans Back Off on Consideration Supreme Court Nominee

"GOP EASES STAND ON VACANCY" San Diego Union-Tribune 2/17/2016

NOTE:  This is from the on-line print version, so no links to article.

Key Republicans back off vow not to consider Obama nominee

As key Republicans sounded a partial retreat Tuesday from a vow to not even consider a Supreme Court nomination this year, President Barack Obama said he expected the Senate to do its duty by voting to confirm or reject the candidate he names to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Invoking the renowned conservative justice's legal philosophy, Obama said he would follow the words and “original intent” of the Constitution by choosing a well-qualified nominee, despite Republican calls that he leave the decision until after the presidential election so that his successor can fill the seat.  The President said he was amused that Republicans who called themselves “strict interpreters of the Constitution” were suddenly citing unwritten precedent about not confirming justices during an election year to justify their position.

“It's pretty hard to find that in the Constitution,” Obama said during a news conference in Rancho Mirage after a two- day summit with Southeast Asian leaders.  “The Constitution is pretty clear about what is supposed to happen now.”

Obama acknowledged that Scalia's replacement could change the balance of the court, but he challenged Republicans to put aside partisan considerations.

“It's the one court where we would expect elected officials to rise above day-to-day politics, and this will be the opportunity for senators to do their job,” he said.  “I expect them to hold hearings.  I expect there to be a vote.  Full stop.”  Obama's comments came hours after two key Senate Republicans voiced reservations about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's call over the weekend that there should be no nomination process during an election year.  Strategists said GOP leaders may have made a tactical mistake that could trigger a public backlash.

Sen. Charles Grassley, the 82-year-old Iowa Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that he may be open to holding hearings on Obama's nominee.

“I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions....  In other words, take it a step at a time,” he told radio reporters in Iowa.  Grassley's staff members did not say why Grassley, who is in Iowa during a congressional recess, stepped ever so slightly back.  But Grassley, who has long prided himself on embodying the good governance ethos of Iowa, found himself the subject of criticism on Tuesday in an editorial in the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register.  “This could have been a ‘profile in courage' moment for Sen. Grassley,” the paper wrote before Grassley's remarks.  “This was an opportunity for our senior senator to be less of a politician and more of a statesman.  It was a chance for him to be principled rather than partisan.”

Three days earlier, Grassley had insisted the “standard practice” was to not confirm new Supreme Court justices in an election year.  “It only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new President” in November, he said.

Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina warned that if fellow Republicans rejected an Obama nominee “sight unseen,” they would “fall into the trap of being obstructionists.”

Other Republicans feared the spectacle of Supreme Court hearings in the middle of an unpredictable presidential campaign.  McConnell had hoped to keep a dutiful schedule of bland bills and low drama in the Senate this year.  “Most every Republican has to feel like in this really robust election year with all the fighting and back and forth going on, that this is not the time to have a battle over a Supreme Court nominee,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R) Utah and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, told NPR Tuesday.

Legal experts, however, cite more than half a dozen examples since 1900 of justices being confirmed during a presidential election year.

Grassley was among the 97 senators who voted unanimously to confirm Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in February 1988, the final year of President Ronald Reagan's term.  He filled a vacancy that arose in June 1987 when Justice Lewis Powell Jr. retired. Reagan chose Kennedy in late November after Judge Robert Bork was defeated in the Senate.

Whether Grassley would be able to hold hearings when McConnell and others are balking is an open question.  McConnell has emphasized that committee chairmen have considerable autonomy under his leadership.  But Grassley will no doubt feel pressure on multiple fronts, including from Democrats, with whom he has had good relations on the committee.

Some quickly seized on Grassley's remarks as evidence of what they think will be growing pressure on Republicans to at least hold hearings on any nominee Obama brings forward.

“Sen. Grassley's statement indicates that our Republican colleagues are moving, as they must eventually, toward obeying the Constitution in holding hearings and a vote on the president's Supreme Court nominee,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. and a member of the Judiciary Committee.  “Rejecting this Constitutional obligation will rightly prompt public outcry and outrage — eventually forcing the right outcome.  The Republican leadership can spare the court and the country damage by doing the right thing.”

Obama said there is nothing in the Constitution to suggest the President's nominee should not be considered and voted on in his last year in the White House.  “Historically, this has not been viewed as a question,” he said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Senate's tradition was to approve qualified “mainstream candidates.”

“Every single senator has a right to vote no on any given nominee,” he said in a statement.  “But the wisdom of the Founding Fathers dictates that we should go through the full vetting and confirmation process so that we and the nation can determine whether those candidates are out of the mainstream in this ideological era.”  White House aides say the president and his team have just begun to consider nominees for the high court, and they do not expect an announcement for at least several weeks.  The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that Scalia's body would lie in repose in the Great Hall of the court Friday.  His funeral Mass will be held Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.  Meanwhile, California Attorney General Kamala Harris 'doused' (? used) speculation that she maybe on Obama's list of potential nominees, saying during a campaign event at a San Jose union hall that while she is flattered to have her name mentioned, she has no interest.  Harris, 51, said her focus is on her current job and her campaign to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

“I'm not putting my name in for consideration.  I do not wish to be considered.  I am running for the United States Senate,”  Harris emphatically told reporters after the union rally.

Harris didn't say who she wants the president to nominate, but suggested it should be someone with “practical life experience.”  She also would favor a nominee who would protect abortion rights and marriage equality for same-sex couples.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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