Obama warns high court credibility at stake in nominee fight

AP News
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Posted: Feb 25, 2016 8:29 AM
Obama warns high court credibility at stake in nominee fight

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama accused Senate Republicans on Wednesday of putting the Supreme Court's credibility at risk if they make good on their vow not to consider or vote on his pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. He promised to nominate a candidate anyway.

"I'm going to do my job," Obama said.

Obama, weighing in during an Oval Office meeting, acknowledged that Republicans are under "enormous pressure from their base" to oppose his nominee. But he said if Republicans defy the Constitution by snubbing his nominee, the ability of any future president to pick judges will further erode.

"At that point, not only are you going to see more and more vacancies and the court system break down, but the credibility of the Court begins to diminish because it's viewed simply as an extension of our politics," Obama said after a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Senate Republicans want to hold off on a Supreme Court pick until Obama leaves office in January. Just a day earlier, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said his 54-member GOP caucus is united against taking any step in the Senate's "advice and consent" process. The Judiciary Committee won't hold confirmation hearings, he said, and the committee and the full Senate will not vote.

The White House insists that unambiguous declaration doesn't mean game over for the president. Rather, Obama and his team are hoping to select a well-regarded candidate Republicans would be hard-pressed to oppose, then build a public campaign of support for him or her while ratcheting up political pressure on Republicans for standing in the way of fair consideration.

Once Republicans are faced with an actual candidate instead of an "abstraction," Obama said, opposition might soften. He said he hoped Judiciary Committee members would "recognize that it is their job to give this person a hearing" and then let their consciences dictate their votes on a nominee.

"I don't expect any member of the Republican caucus to stick their head out at the moment and say that," Obama said. "But let's see how the public responds to the nominee that we put forward."

But Republicans showed no signs of backing down. A few Republicans, including McConnell, have said they would not even meet with the nominee when that person makes customary introductions on Capitol Hill.

"Why would I? We've made the decision," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a committee member.

Obama's scuffle with Senate Republicans has reverberated on the presidential campaign trail, with growing prospects that the next president will take office without a Scalia replacement on the court. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in a statement Wednesday called Republicans' refusal to consider any appointee "shameful and indefensible." She said it is offensive to Obama and the American people.

"It's time for the Senate to put statesmanship over partisanship, and live up to our constitutional principles," Clinton said.

In his blog post earlier Wednesday on the legal site SCOTUSblog, Obama tried to quell conservative concerns that he would choose an unabashed liberal who would upend the court's balance. He said he would pick someone who recognizes the court's limits and knows that a judge's job is to interpret law, not make it.

"I seek judges who approach decisions without any particular ideology or agenda, but rather a commitment to impartial justice, a respect for precedent, and a determination to faithfully apply the law to the facts at hand," Obama said.

Yet in a nod to Democrats' interests, Obama also said the law isn't clear in all cases that reach the high court. He said he was looking for someone whose "life experience" outside the court would allow that person to understand how decisions affect "the daily reality of people's lives in a big, complicated democracy."

"There will be cases in which a judge's analysis necessarily will be shaped by his or her own perspective, ethics, and judgment," he wrote, adding that he would announce a nominee in the next few weeks.

Filling the vacancy left by Scalia's unexpected death on Feb. 13 is crucial because the Supreme Court now has a 4-4 ideological split between justices who are usually conservative and those who are in its liberal wing. The battle has invigorated both sides' interest groups and voters who focus on abortion, immigration and other issues before the court.

"He hasn't seen the pressure that's going to build," Sen. Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said of McConnell. "It's going to build in all facets of the political constituency and the country."

After meeting privately with GOP senators Tuesday, McConnell and other leaders said rank-and-file Republicans were overwhelmingly behind the decision to quickly halt the nomination process.

McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Wednesday that the leader's office is working with the White House to schedule a meeting with the president, but he said that McConnell's position will not change.

"The leader welcomes the opportunity to reiterate to the president directly that the American people will be heard on this matter, and the nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the fall," Stewart said.

Moderate Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who faces a tough re-election race this fall, are among the few voicing support for at least holding hearings on an Obama nominee.

Since the Senate started routinely referring presidential nominations to committees for action in 1955, every Supreme Court nominee not later withdrawn has received a Judiciary Committee hearing, according to the Senate Historical Office.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Andrew Taylor and Mark Sherman contributed to this report.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick