WASHINGTON – With ideological control of the Supreme Court at stake and senators trading insults, lawmakers who helped the Senate avert a meltdown over judges a decade ago say today’s political climate is too toxic for a bipartisan pact to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
President Barack Obama has not announced a pick, yet nearly all the Senate’s majority Republicans seem dug in, at least for now, against even meeting with his nominee this election year, let alone confirming one. Democrats are adamant about trying to topple the blockade led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., or trying to make the GOP suffer in November’s voting, and the rhetoric reflects the issue’s intensity.
“Senate Republicans are giving a middle finger to the American people, and they’re giving a middle finger to this president,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn.
With top senators from each party preparing to discuss the standoff with Obama at the White House Tuesday, here’s a look at the atmosphere on Capitol Hill as the battle resumes over filling a vacancy that would tip the court’s 4-4 balance. But first, a look back at:
THE GANG OF 14
In 2005, Senate Democrats were in the minority and blocking final votes on a batch of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.
Though none of the openings were on the Supreme Court, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., was threatening to unilaterally change Senate rules so Democrats couldn’t filibuster Bush’s selections with procedural delays. With Democratic leaders not backing down, the standoff threatened to end all traces of cooperation between the two parties and derail virtually all legislation.
Moderate, rank-and-file senators, seven from each party, formed an informal “Gang of 14.” The group had enough votes to force a middle ground – no rule changes by Republicans, and no unreasonable filibusters by Democrats.
CAN THAT HAPPEN IN 2016?
Hard to see it.
This year the stakes are far higher, with the highest court’s philosophical leanings in play and the issue already a hot-button dispute that could affect this fall’s presidential and congressional elections.
“The atmosphere is too poisonous on all sides,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of three remaining Gang of 14 members, said last week. “There was more of an environment of working together.”
Gone are Gang of 14 stalwarts like the late Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and John Warner, R-Va., defenders of the chamber’s tradition of comity. Also gone are senators who had electoral motivation to compromise, including Democrats from GOP states such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, plus Republican Lincoln Chafee of Democratic Rhode Island. Chafee eventually became a Democrat.
“That attitude has been replaced, in many ways on both sides, by sort of the House’s attitude of, ‘What can we do to get one more marble than those guys,’ ” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., referencing the typically combative tactics of that chamber. Graham and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, are the only other members of the group remaining in the Senate.
This time, McCain and Graham are backing the GOP barrier against any Obama pick. Collins favors holding committee hearings on a nominee.
Former Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a Gang of 14 member, cites Republicans’ “anti-President Obama mood” and distrust between the two sides but said both parties cause problems.
“When one has the halo, the other has the pitchfork,” Nelson said.
Pryor doesn’t rule out a breakthrough but said, “We thought it was a fairly toxic political climate then, but it’s worse today, and there aren’t as many moderates.”
THE DEBATE, NOT ALWAYS POLITE
One reflection of this struggle’s magnitude is the willingness of Senate lions to verbally assault each other in deeply personal ways.
Last Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., targeted Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, after Grassley and the panel’s 10 other Republicans signed a letter saying they would hold no hearings on a nominee until the next president makes a selection.
On the Senate floor, Reid, 76, accused the 82-year-old Grassley of “ineptness” and suggested he’d be remembered as “the least productive Judiciary chairman in history.”
Grassley took to the Senate floor to describe “the tremendous damage” Reid inflicted in 2013 when Democrats muscled through Senate rule changes making it easier to confirm lower-court judges.
“Childish tantrums aren’t appropriate for the Senate,” said Grassley.
BOTH SIDES ARE JUST REVVING UP
The issue has become a staple of Democratic fund-raising pleas. On the other side, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network has run television ads thanking McConnell, Grassley and GOP senators in difficult re-election contests in swing states like New Hampshire and Ohio for saving the nomination for the next president – a way of pressing them to keep blocking any Obama pick.
Meanwhile, each side’s floor strategies played out in miniature last Thursday as Democrats focused on the issue and Republicans tried moving on.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chided the GOP for its “outrageous” refusal to consider an Obama nominee and repeated the Democratic refrain, “Do your job.”
The next lawmaker to rise was Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. She spoke about her state’s Iraq and Afghanistan war dead.