Conservative leaders are sending a blunt message to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: The Supreme Court is more important than your majority.
McConnell’s (R-Ky.) top priority since becoming majority leader last year has been to put his colleagues in a strong position to win reelection, in part by showing that Republicans can govern.
But bottling up President Obama’s nominee to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia could bring the work of the chamber to a screeching halt, if Democrats choose to retaliate.
Conservatives say that’s the risk McConnell has to take.
Taking action on a Supreme Court nominee — even through the Judiciary Committee — when Obama has less than a year left in his term would be a cardinal sin, conservative activists say.
They argue the ideological balance of the court is so important that it’s not worth playing political games to take the pressure off vulnerable Republican incumbents.
“I would rank having a conservative justice as more important than having the majority in the Senate,” said David Bozell, president of For America, a conservative advocacy group. “God knows this Republican majority in the Senate hasn’t done much anyway for conservatism, period.
“If you look at some of the conservative movement’s successes, it’s in large part due to the court doing some decent things and making some good decisions,” he added.
Two of the biggest court decisions in recent years, the District of Columbia v. Heller and Citizens United v. FEC, did far more to lift restrictions on gun ownership and political spending by outside groups — two conservative priorities — than anything passed by Republicans in Congress.
“The Senate isn’t as important on a great number of issues as the Supreme Court. The Senate is not going to determine whether or not we have Second Amendment rights, the Supreme Court is. The Senate is not going to determine marriage, the Supreme Court did. The Supreme Court, not the Senate, determined abortion,” said Mike Farris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association.
“The issues that are of great concern to the conservative movement have all been decided by the Supreme Court,” he added.
Democrats are hammering McConnell and his GOP colleagues for arguing right off the bat that confirming a successor to Scalia should wait until next year, when a new president is in office.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that if Republicans refused to hold hearings, they would be remembered as the “most nakedly obstructionist and irresponsible majority in history.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is hitting vulnerable incumbents for not doing their jobs, and newspapers around the country are following suit.
The Concord Monitor wrote in a recent editorial that Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) — who is up for re-election — was “wrong” to echo McConnell “in knee-jerk fashion” by calling for a year-long postponement of confirmation hearings.
“Voters should consider such a refusal to perform their sworn constitutional responsibility to advise and consent, not merely obstruct, a disqualification for future Senate office,” the paper wrote.
The Scranton-Times Tribune editorialized that Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) support for McConnell’s position is “naked obstruction” and that the vulnerable incumbent “should desist.”
The chorus of criticism has put Republicans on the defensive and prompted an internal debate about whether the Senate should at least have hearings on Obama’s nominee.
Freshman Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) warned early in the week that he and his colleagues could “fall into the trap of being obstructionists.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), another incumbent up for reelection, initially told reporters Wednesday that Obama’s nominee should get a hearing, but has since backed off her statement.
“Certainly there’s nervousness on the part of Republicans about what an absolute refusal to hold any hearings might do to GOP candidates in swing states,” said John Ullyot, a GOP aide and former senior Senate aide. “If Republicans hold hearings, that takes a lot of the pressure off their candidates in swing states who are in some cases in tough races.”
But conservatives warn that holding hearings on a nominee would open Pandora’s box, potentially leading to a floor vote.
While it’s unlikely that Democrats could muster the 14 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, conservatives don’t want to take any chances.
“People who argue that the Republicans should play footsy with President Obama and the Democrats on this Supreme Court opening are the same types of people who are simply tone deaf to the political moment we’re experiencing,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
“The Senate should be more important to hold onto, but unfortunately with runaway interventionist court, the Supreme Court might be the important governmental entity in the entire government,” he said.
“When progressives get five votes they can do something as crazy as declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant. They can change the very nature and understanding of marriage.”
While conservatives say Republicans should use their majority to defend the ideological composition of the court no matter the cost, they vehemently dispute that quashing Obama’s nominee will hurt GOP candidates in November.
Instead, they warn that moving the nominee would provoke such a negative reaction from the party’s base that the fallout on Election Day would be much worse.
“What is the purpose of having a majority unless you use that majority to defend, uphold and defend the Constitution? This is something the left understands quite well in terms of the purpose of the majority, that’s how we got ObamaCare,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
“They used their majority to force ObamaCare onto the nation knowing it may cost them their majority.”