Democrats pushed Sunday for Congress to vote upon a Supreme Court nominee from President Barack Obama, sharpening a fight with Republican leaders who said they won’t consider a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia until after the 2016 election.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in a Twitter message, said Obama will occupy the White House until January. “It’s his job to nominate a justice, the Senate has a responsibility to vote,” Clinton said.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, vying with Clinton for the Democratic nomination, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that denying a vote for a Supreme Court nominee “is beyond comprehension, and it just speaks to the unbelievable level and unprecedented level of Republican obstructionism against Obama.”
The battle lines have been drawn as Scalia’s death stands to have an immediate effect on some of the country’s most contentious legal questions — from abortion to immigration to mandatory union fees — by undercutting conservative hopes of gaining victories in pending Supreme Court cases.
Potential 5-4 votes in favor of conservative positions, with Scalia in the majority, now could result in a series of 4-4 ties, leaving intact lower court decisions. An eight-member lineup would also have a significant impact on the cases the court accepts in the term that starts in October.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to block Obama from replacing Scalia, a direct challenge to the White House. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President,” McConnell said in a statement.
The Senate passes judgment on presidential court appointees, a process with a lengthy history of bitter battles.
Obama said Saturday he won’t hesitate to offer a nominee. “There will be plenty of time for me to do so, and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote,” he said.
McConnell got support from Republican presidential candidates including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush. At a debate on Saturday, Republican front-runner Donald Trump called for “delay, delay, delay.”
The Senate isn’t obligated to take up a nomination, Cruz said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday, urging the 2016 election to be a referendum on the Supreme Court.
“If an additional liberal justice goes to the court, we’re one justice away from the Second Amendment being written out,” Cruz said, referring to the amendment in the Constitution that protects the right of people to keep and bear arms.
Cruz’s stance drew scorn from Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “You know, the Constitution, Ted Cruz holds the Constitution, you know, when he walks through the halls of Congress,” Schumer said. “Let him show me the clause that says president’s only president for three years.”
The unexpected high court vacancy came after Scalia, the conservative justice who sought to limit constitutional protections to those envisioned by the nation’s founders, was found dead at a West Texas resort on Saturday at age 79.
Obama’s second term ends in January, and Republicans say a choice that could last decades — Scalia was appointed to the court in 1986 — should be decided by the new president following elections in November.
Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee that considers nominations, said the Senate, with a Democratic majority, approved a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of President Ronald Reagan’s term, setting a precedent for action on Scalia’s replacement.
“It would be a sheer dereliction of duty for the Senate not to have a hearing, not to have a vote,” Leahy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If the Republican leadership refuses to even hold a hearing, I think that is going to guarantee they lose control of the Senate, because I don’t think the American people will stand for that,” Leahy said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said in a statement on Sunday that to not move ahead on a nomination “would threaten both the Constitution and our democracy itself.”
“Article II Section 2 of the Constitution says the president of the United States nominates justices to the Supreme Court, with the advice and consent of the Senate. I can’t find a clause that says ’...except when there’s a year left in the term of a Democratic president,”’ Warren said.
Senate minority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, had similar thoughts.
Would be unprecedented in recent history for SCOTUS to go year with vacancy. And shameful abdication of our constitutional responsibility.— Senator Harry Reid (@SenatorReid) February 13, 2016