LOWELL — Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican who has long put his national party at arm’s length, criticized the GOP-led Senate for putting what he framed as a misplaced focus on the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice at a time when states and cities are desperately waiting for lawmakers to send more federal pandemic aid.
Speaking at a downtown BBQ restaurant in the Merrimack Valley city, Baker said the intense partisan battle over when to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg is “100 percent, ends justify the means, classic Washington behavior” and is driving attention away from the response to a virus that has killed 200,000 Americans.
“It’s a big part of why most people in this country think Washington is a problem. Period,” an animated Baker told reporters, lobbing criticism toward both Democrats and Republicans.
"And I sit here as the governor of the Commonwealth of Mass., where we have basically been playing this hand around COVID as best we can with a really uneven, inconsistent response from the federal government . . . and they are now going to lock themselves up in a conversation about the Supreme Court.
“Which is important,” Baker added, "but nobody looks good with respect to how they’ve chosen to position themselves over the course of the last four years on this issue at a point in time when what I would really like to see them focus on is the pandemic.”
Massachusetts remains without a complete budget plan for the current fiscal year, and the state economy has struggled mightily amid trying to control the spread of the novel coronavirus and awaiting word from Washington if help is coming this fall.
But the fight over whether President Trump should nominate, and the Senate should confirm, a new Supreme Court justice has quickly vacuumed up enormous attention on Capitol Hill, throwing doubt on the ability of Senate and House leaders to also soon reach a deal on new aid to workers, businesses, and state and local governments.
Baker, who has publicly urged Trump and the Senate not to move a court nominee before the election, said the two chambers have “significant” common ground to work from, adding to his frustration that local leaders have gone months without clarity about when, or in what shape, an aid package may arrive.
The Republican governor has repeatedly during his two terms sought to frame a contrast between his ability to work with Massachusetts Democrats and the paralytic politicking that often dominates the country’s polarized federal government.
Within days of Ginsburg’s death, Republican senators quickly coalesced to embrace a breakneck confirmation process for Trump’s third pick for the nation’s highest court, including gaining the backing of Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who’s now a Senator from Utah.
It immediately set off intense criticism from Democrats, who four years ago watched the GOP-controlled Senate deny a hearing to President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, after Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative, died nearly nine months before the 2016 election.
One of only two Republican senators to publicly oppose moving forward on a nominee before the Nov. 3 election was Maine’s Susan Collins, whom Baker took the unexpected step of endorsing on Friday in her heated reelection effort against the state’s House speaker.
That quickly raised questions about whether the move — while seemingly natural for two of the region’s moderate Republicans — would dent Baker’s standing among Massachusetts Democrats and independents who view wresting control of the Senate from Republicans, including Collins, as crucial this fall.
Baker, who has not said whether he’s running for reelection in 2022, defended his decision Wednesday, saying he did not take into his political calculus which party controls the Senate but rather that he believes Collins “has been a terrific senator for Maine and a terrific senator for the region.”
Collins narrowly trailed Democrat Sara Gideon in a Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll of likely Maine voters released Monday.
“Susan Collins, for the past five years, has been a phone call away every time I needed to talk to somebody who has a lot of standing and a lot of history in Washington about how to accomplish goals and objectives for Massachusetts," Baker said, crediting her for helping get tariffs lifted on the region’s lobster industry.
“She’s always been there to support the commonwealth as a member of the New England region,” he said.