McConnell Pledges Quick Vote On Next Justice; Biden Says No
Update 9/18/20, 4:53 p.m.
WASHINGTON — The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg just over six weeks before the election cast an immediate spotlight on the crucial high court vacancy, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly vowing to bring to a vote whoever President Donald Trump nominates.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden vigorously disagreed, declaring that "voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice to consider."
McConnell, the majority leader who sets the calendar in the U.S. Senate, declared unequivocally in a statement not long after Ginsburg's death was announced that Trump's nominee would receive a confirmation vote in the chamber — even though he had stalled President Barack Obama's choice for months ahead of the 2016 election, eventually preventing a vote.
Trump, in brief remarks to reporters after learning of her death, called Ginsburg "an amazing woman," adding that "she led an amazing life." He had continued with a campaign speech in Minnesota for about an hour and a half after the nation — as well as aides and many in his audience with cell phones — had learned of her death. He seemed surprised when he spoke with reporters afterward, saying he did not know she had died.
He had boasted in the speech that the next presidential term could offer him as many as four appointments to the nine-member court, whose members are confirmed for life. He said, "This is going to be the most important election in the history of our country and we have to get it right."
Biden, returning to Delaware from his own campaign stop in Minnesota, praised Ginsburg upon his arrival.
She was "not only a giant of the legal profession but a beloved figure," he said. She "stood for all of us."
It must be up to the next president, whether himself or Trump, to choose a successor to be submitted for Senate confirmation, he said.
"This was the position that the Republican Senate took in 2016, when there were nearly nine months before the election," he said. "That is the position the United States Senate must take now, when the election is less than two months away. We are talking about the Constitution and the Supreme Court. That institution should not be subject to politics.
Ginsburg's death could significantly affect the presidential race, further stirring passions in the deeply divided nation as the campaign pushes into its stretch run.
A confirmation vote in the Senate is not guaranteed, even with a Republican majority.
Typically it takes several months to vet and hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee, and time is short ahead of the election. Key senators may be reluctant to cast votes so close to the election. With a slim GOP majority, 53 seats in the 100-member chamber, Trump's choice could afford to lose only a few.
McConnell did not specify the timing, but trying for confirmation in a post-election lame-duck session if Trump had lost to Biden or Republicans had lost the Senate would carry further political complications.
Democrats immediate denounced McConnell's move as hypocritical, pointing out that he refused to call hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama's pick, 237 days before the 2016 election. The 2020 election is 46 days away.
Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer, in a tweet, echoed word for word what McConnell said in 2016 about the Garland nomination: "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."
Trump has made appointments to the federal judiciary, including two Supreme Court justices, part of his legacy and said last month that he would "absolutely" try to fill a vacancy if one came up before the end of his first term.
"I would move quickly, " Trump said in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. "Why not? I mean, they would. The Democrats would if they were in this position."
Trump last week added 20 names to his list of candidates he's pledged to choose from if he has future vacancies to fill. He contrasted his list with unnamed "radical justices" he claimed Biden would nominate who would "fundamentally transform America without a single vote of Congress."
Trump released a similar list in 2016 in a bid to win over conservative and evangelical voters who had doubts about his conservative credentials.
The average number of days to confirm a justice, according to the Congressional Research Service, is 69 days, which would be after the election.
After McConnell made his position known, Senate Republicans began issuing statements praising Ginsburg's life and career without taking a position on what should be done about the vacancy.
Four GOP defections could defeat a nomination, while a tie vote could be broken by Vice President Mike Pence.
Among the senators to watch are Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and others.
Collins is in a tight race for her own reelection, as are several other GOP senators, including Cory Gardner in Colorado. Murkowski and Romney have been critical of Trump and protective of the institution of the Senate.
Under McConnell, the Senate changed the confirmation rules to allow for a simple majority. The Senate's No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Thune, supported McConnell's plan Friday night, though the Judiciary Commitee chairman, Lindsey Graham, did not weigh in.
One longtime Democrat, Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader, warned that Republicans forcing another nominee on the court would "tear our country apart."
One difference from 2016 is that, despite the vacancy resulting from Ginsburg's death, conservatives have a working majority of five justices on a range of issues. When Antonin Scalia died four years ago, the court was divided between four liberals and four conservatives.
However, the next pick could shape important decisions, including on abortion rights, as well as any legal challenges that may stem from the 2020 election. The 2018 hearings on Trump's second pick, now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, turned into a bitter partisan battle after sexual assault allegations were made.
Biden has promised to nominate a Black woman to the high court if given the chance. He has said he's also working on a list of potential nominees, but the campaign has given no indication that it will release names before the election.
Democrats believe doing so would unnecessarily distract from Biden's focus on Trump's handling of the pandemic and the economy, while also giving the president and his allies fresh targets to attack. In the hours before Ginsburg's death, Trump trailed Biden in national polling but the race was much tighter in battleground states.