PROVIDENCE — Paul Beaulieu stood in Burnside Park last weekend, holding a handmade sign that read, “Shut down the Senate!”
Beaulieu, a 76-year-old North Providence resident, was among the more than 200 people who attended the downtown rally, calling for US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island to do whatever it takes to stop the confirmation of President Trump’s pick to replace US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“Be courageous and do whatever is necessary,” Beaulieu said. “We won’t have a second chance. The Supreme Court is more important than the presidency.”
In the week since that rally, the state’s two Democratic senators have made it clear that they agree with the protesters. “We know what’s at stake,” they said in a joint statement right after the rally. “Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we will fight despite the odds.”
But that won’t stop some from keeping the pressure on. At 2 p.m. Sunday, a coalition of groups plans to hold another Burnside Park rally titled “Block Trump’s Court Seizure: A ‘How To’ for our Senators!”
Whitehouse, who will have a visible role in the confirmation process as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Globe that Democrats don’t have any procedural maneuvers that they didn’t use in past judicial battles, such as the confirmations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
“There is no triple-secret procedural trick that we have had in our back pockets all along and didn’t use on Gorsuch and didn’t use on Kavanaugh,” Whitehouse said. “It just doesn’t exist.”
He noted that some people have suggested, for example, that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could pursue the impeachment of a Trump appointee, such as Attorney General William Barr, to try to slow the process of filling the Supreme Court vacancy. But he said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could find a way around that by quickly reverting to other business or changing the rules.
“There is just nothing there in terms of procedural tricks,” Whitehouse said.
One thing Democrats can do, he said, is speak out “very loudly and very aggressively” about the attempt by the Republican-led Senate to “ram through” the Supreme Court appointment before the presidential election. While McConnell reportedly has the votes, he said there could be “blowback” in the home states of Republican senators who agreed to vote for a nominee before that nominee was even named.
Also, Whitehouse said he plans to continue speaking out about the “dark money” of anonymous donors that he said are behind the push to stack courts with conservative judges and to tee up cases that further a conservative agenda.
“This isn’t just happening,” he said. “This has been the product of a very orchestrated scheme to control who gets nominated, to provide funding, to provide political cover, to run certain cases before the Supreme Court.”
Whitehouse called the situation “a problem of court capture,” saying, “The big donors can get things done by judges that they can’t get even the Republican legislators to vote for.”
The conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page has repeatedly taken aim at Whitehouse over judicial selection battles, and this week it blasted him for failing to answer its questions about “his own dark-money ties” at a House hearing.
In an essay on Medium, Whitehouse scoffed at the Journal’s “infatuation” with him, saying he had answered the editorial board’s questions. He said he has not received money from “Demand Justice and other Arabella affiliates,” and he said disclosure laws should apply to both liberal and conservative groups.
Some liberals have suggested that if they win back the White House and the Senate, Democrats could “pack” the Supreme Court by adding more judges.
But Whitehouse said “extraordinary measures” are not popular in places that now have close Senate races.
“We’ve got to be very careful about overdoing it and avoiding the worst-case scenario in which we engage in activities that don’t, in fact, change the outcome at the court but do, in fact, weaken our own candidates and potentially cost us the control of the Senate,” he said. “We have to be sensible and strategic about how this plays.”
Progressive activist Aaron Regunberg, a former state legislator and lieutenant governor candidate, argued that Democratic senators have a variety of options for responding to the Republican attempt to rush through the Supreme Court confirmation.
“Rhode Islanders are not demanding a triple-secret silver bullet,” he said. “I don’t know if Senator Whitehouse is misunderstanding the call to action that his constituents have been making, but the folks coming out on the streets right now are not naive.”
People realize that a procedural battle might not succeed, Regunberg said. “But when our fundamental rights are on the line for a generation, if we can raise the chances of success from 0 percent to 20 percent, we better exhaust every opportunity before conceding defeat," he said.
Sunday’s rally promises to present “15 specific, concrete, and feasible procedural actions” that Democratic senators can take.
And Regunberg noted that Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Senator Harry Reid, wrote a New York Times opinion piece describing “a range of tools available to Democrats to apply constant pressure.” For example, Jentleson said, Democrats can deny “unanimous consent” agreements needed to set the daily schedule and terms of conduct for Senate business, and they can boycott confirmation hearings.
Regunberg said such steps are worth taking when this Supreme Court nomination could have a long-lasting impact on “reproductive rights, economic rights, civil liberties, free and fair elections, and ecological life on the planet for 100 years.”
McConnell hasn’t hesitated to use every tool available to him to wield power, he said, and that strategy has been more effective than Democrats' “don’t rock the boat and hope voters reward us” strategy.