The price of obstruction: Republicans gamble that blocking Obama's SCOTUS nominee won't hurt them too badly

Republicans understand the benefits of Supreme Court obstruction and hope that they outweigh the political cost

Published February 24, 2016 10:56AM (EST)

Mitch McConnell   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Mitch McConnell (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

There was never any real uncertainty over how Republicans in Congress would react to President Obama’s promise to nominate a successor to recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. With the ideological makeup of the court in the balance and the future of the conservative policy agenda on the line, the best play for the Senate GOP has always been to delay, obstruct and hope that the November election would send a Republican to the White House who could then fill the vacancy and restore the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative majority. And, as expected, that is precisely how they’re planning to proceed.

The Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday stating flat-out that “this Committee will not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until after our next President is sworn in on January 20, 2017.” The reasons they enumerate for pursuing this course are nonsensical – according to the letter, “the American people are presented with an exceedingly rare opportunity to decide, in a very real and concrete way, the direction the Court will take over the next generation.” The “exceedingly rare opportunity” they’re referring to is, of course, the presidential election, which happens regularly once every four years. What they’re really arguing, without justification, is that the last election (in which Americans empowered Barack Obama to determine “the direction the Court will take over the next generation”) matters less than the election that hasn’t happened yet.

But the fake reasons for why they’re doing this don’t really matter. What matters is that they’ve set themselves on a course of maximalist obstructionism. The Judiciary Committee is refusing to hold hearings, and top Senate Republicans are saying that they’ll refuse to even meet with whomever Obama nominates. They want the president’s nominee to be a nonentity, and they want to keep their criticisms focused exclusively on Barack Obama and the Democrats. The best way to do that is to deny the nominee even the slightest hint of legitimacy.

While this may be the best play for Republicans, it’s still risky as hell and fraught with political danger. The Republicans are defending a large number of Senate seats this election cycle, a number of which are in blue states, and they’ve just guaranteed that Republican obstructionism and congressional dysfunction will be campaign issues going forward. We’ve already seen vulnerable Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois adopt a much more accommodating posture toward the president on this, likely because he realizes how hard-line opposition to the president could imperil his reelection chances. In New Hampshire, Democrat Maggie Hassan is slamming Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte for siding with the obstructionists.

And the White House is, in all likelihood, going to raise as much hell over this as it possibly can. Obama is going to pick his nominee, and he’s going to make sure the country knows the personal and legal background of the person he chooses. They’re going to hit Senate Republicans as hard and as often as they can for refusing to even have a sit-down with the manifestly qualified jurist the president selected. They’re going to remind reporters as often as is necessary how many days the nomination has languished because of Republican intransigence.

The Republicans won’t have an effective counterargument to this onslaught. The position they’ve backed themselves into is that the president should not even bother to present a nominee, which is self-evidently ludicrous. And their stated reasons for obstruction – a solemn commitment to democracy and the need to “give the people a voice” – are obvious bullshit. It’s about maintaining power at all costs. And since they’ve adopted a maximalist posture, they can’t relent even in the slightest. The second they give Obama’s nominee the time of day, they’ll have allowed that he or she is worthy of attention from the Senate, and then they’ll be in the even less defensible position of having to reject a qualified Supreme Court nominee for no other reason than antipathy toward the president. Republicans are stuck with unflinching obstruction, and they’ll be absorbing hits for months because of it.

They almost certainly understand this, and they’re going down this road anyway because they also understand what is at stake. Senate Republicans have made a simple calculation: blanket obstruction guarantees that Obama will not get another lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court and leaves open the chance that a Republican will nominate Scalia’s successor, and those benefits outweigh the short-term political damage they’ll take for being hyper-partisan obstructionists. What they have to hope is that Republicans will nominate a presidential candidate who can win, and that this strategy doesn’t end up costing them their Senate majority.

By Simon Maloy

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