Court vacancy heightens 2016 contest, as well as fight for Senate

Story highlights

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy says Senate leaders should allow a vote on President Obama's Supreme Court nominee
  • Leahy said it would be a "dereliction of duty" to push a vote past November's election

Washington (CNN)The political world was still reacting Sunday morning to the seismic news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death, with Democrats and Republicans fighting over the timing of a potential replacement.

The news raised the stakes of the presidential election, and -- as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, pointed out -- could tip the balance of the Senate, as well.
Leahy, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview with CNN's Dana Bash on "State of the Union" Sunday that it would be a "dereliction of duty" if the chamber doesn't vote on President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.
    "The fact is, when you elect a president, you have to assume a Supreme Court vacancy, he is going to make the nomination," Leahy said. "And it would be a sheer dereliction of duty for the Senate not to have a hearing, not to have a vote."
    Leahy said if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, refuses to allow a vote on that nominee, the GOP will pay a price in November's elections.
    "If the Republican leadership refuses to even hold a hearing, I think that is going to guarantee they're going to lose control of the Senate," Leahy said.
    Republicans and Democrats have quickly entered a bitter fight over when to fill Scalia's position on the nation's high court.
    Republicans argue that it's been more than 80 years since a Supreme Court nominee was confirmed in an election year.
    Leahy pushed back by pointing to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was confirmed on February 3, 1988 -- but only after Ronald Reagan's initial nominee, Robert Bork, was rejected by the Senate.
    But Republicans said the so-called "Thurmond rule" -- an informal history of not voting on judicial nominees in the months preceding an election -- should be observed.
    "There's a reason for that, and the reason is that the next president should have a chance to fill that void, and not someone who's never going to answer to the electorate again," Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential nominee, said on "State of the Union" Sunday.
    Jeb Bush said on the program that he expects Obama to nominate someone "out of the mainstream" and the Senate to reject that nominee.
    Asked whether the Senate should vote at all on an Obama nominee, Bush said: "It's up to Mitch McConnell. It is not important to me."
    Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama shouldn't send the Supreme Court a nominee at all.
    "I just think at a time when the country is so divided, it would just be great if the President didn't send somebody forward and we had an election. And then everybody would be clear about what they want in the next Supreme Court justice," Kasich said. "But I guess it's not going to go that way."
    Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said on "Meet the Press" that "we ought to make the 2016 election a referendum on the Supreme Court."
    "I cannot wait to stand on that debate stage with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders and talk about what the Supreme Court will look like depending on who wins," he said.
    Cruz added: "By the way, the Senate's duty is to advise and consent. You know what? The Senate is advising right now. We're advising that a lame-duck president in an election year is not going to be able to tip the balance of the Supreme Court, that we're going to have an election."
    Asked on ABC's "This Week" whether his position meant he'd filibuster any Obama Supreme Court nominee, Cruz said: "Absolutely."
    The Democratic presidential field took a starkly different tone Saturday night.
    Hillary Clinton, at a campaign stop in Denver, said, "Barack Obama is president of the United States until January 20, 2017. That is a fact, my friends, whether the Republicans like it or not."
    "Elections have consequences," she said. "The President has a responsibility to nominate a new justice and the Senate has a responsibly to vote. And all of us Democrats we have a responsibly to make sure a Republican doesn't win in November and rip away all of the progress we have made together."
    Clinton's Democratic presidential rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said Obama should name a nominee "as soon as possible" and he wants to see that nominee confirmed by the Supreme Court.
    "I just don't think it looks good that, for very overtly political reasons, that the Republicans would deny this president the right to express his constitutional responsibility," Sanders said.