WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate's top Democrat accused Republicans Monday of trying to delegitimize Barack Obama's presidency by preventing him from filling the Supreme Court vacancy as a divided Senate convened for the first time since Antonin Scalia's death and immediately dove into election-year combat over the opening.
Firing back, Republicans highlighted June 1992 remarks by Vice President Joe Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. Biden argued then that should a Supreme Court seat become vacant — there was no opening at the time — then-President George H.W. Bush should not nominate a replacement until after that fall's presidential election.
The back-and forth underscored the high-stakes political showdown that Scalia's death has sparked, a clash that each party thinks will motivate its voters to stream to the polls in November and has already kicked each side's interest groups into high gear. The Supreme Court now faces a precarious 4-4 ideological balance between right- and left-leaning justices as they consider cases on abortion, voting rights, Obama's health care law and other polarizing issues.
As the Senate went into session following a moment of silence for Scalia, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Republicans were making "an unprecedented attempt to hold hostage an entire branch of government."
In sharp tones that typified both sides' comments since the 79-year-old jurist's Feb. 13 passing, Reid added that Republicans are pressing "a full-blown effort to delegitimize President Barack Obama, the presidency, and undermine our basic system of checks and balances."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated the stance he took hours after Scalia's death that the next president should select a court nominee. He said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, whose statements have wavered, agreed with him.
McConnell said that with a presidential election underway, the voters should choose, "rather than a lame-duck president whose priorities and policies they just rejected in the most-recent national election." That was a reference to GOP congressional gains in the 2014 midterm elections.
But separately, McConnell's press office and Grassley in a floor speech went further and cited the 1992 Biden remarks.
"Once the political season is underway and it is, action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over," Biden said at the time on the Senate floor, according to a C-SPAN recording of his remarks.
Grassley called the comments "The Biden Rules" and said the vice president "knows what the Senate should do."
Biden defended himself in a written statement, saying that in his 1992 speech he said the Senate and White House should cooperate "to ensure the court functions as the founding fathers intended." He said under his long-time leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the chamber considered nine Supreme Court nominees "and the current Senate has a constitutional duty to do the same."
Both sides have spent days unearthing comments members of the other party made about court nominations years ago under presidents of different parties when the political circumstances were reversed.
McConnell's assertion that the president elected this November should nominate the replacement has drawn support from nearly all Republicans and irate, solid opposition from Democrats. Yet as the two parties girded for what promises to be a months-long battle, some cracks have appeared on the GOP side.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. — who faces a difficult re-election race this year in a Democratic-leaning state — distributed an opinion column he'd written for the Chicago Sun-Times saying he looks forward to Obama selecting a nominee.
"I also recognize my duty as a senator to either vote in support or opposition to that nominee following a fair and thorough hearing along with a complete and transparent release of all requested information," Kirk wrote.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she favored Judiciary Committee hearings "so that there can be an in-depth vetting of the nominee and his or her views." Several other GOP senators said they'd defer to a decision by Grassley about holding hearings, including Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., Rob Portman, R-Ohio and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who face re-election contests in November.
Obama is expected to announce his nomination in coming weeks. GOP senators will gather on Tuesday for the first time since Scalia's death to discuss their path forward.
"We'll have more to say on this" after Tuesday's Republican meeting, McConnell told reporters.
Unanswered questions were making it tough for Republicans to fine-tune their approach just yet, including who Obama will name and who the GOP presidential nominee will be. Another challenge was how GOP senators facing re-election in closely divided states would strike a balance between retaining conservatives' support and avoiding accusations from independent voters of being too partisan.
"It's really up to Sen. Grassley and the members of that committee. I don't serve on that committee," Ayotte said Monday regarding possible hearings.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.