Top Democrats to White House: Take Supreme Court fight to GOP

Reactions to Scalia show rising political polarization
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Reactions to Scalia show rising political polarization 07:41

Story highlights

  • Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and several other Democrats want President Barack Obama to choose a Supreme Court nominee who would inflict maximum political pain on Republicans
  • Such a nominee would be someone the GOP would ordinarily support but only oppose now because it is an election year

Washington (CNN)Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and several other Democrats want President Barack Obama to choose a Supreme Court nominee who would inflict maximum political pain on Republicans because he or she would be very difficult for the GOP to oppose, according to two Democratic sources.

In other words, some influential Senate Democrats want Obama to choose a nominee who Republicans would ordinarily support but are only opposing now because it's an election year. This, they believe, would allow them to paint the GOP as intransigent and well outside of the mainstream, undermining the Senate GOP's election-year argument that they are committed to governing in a bipartisan manner.
Going this route, they believe, would increasingly ratchet up pressure on at-risk Republicans who are facing tough re-elections, energize the Democratic base and potentially flip the Senate if the GOP stands in their way and denies a popular nominee a vote.
Reid spoke with White House chief of staff Denis McDonough shortly after Scalia's death, according to a source familiar with the call.
It's unclear who specifically Reid wants in the post. Some Democrats point to appellate judge Sri Srinivasan, who would be the first justice of South Asian descent serving on the court and was confirmed to his current post by a 97-0 vote in 2013.
"I think the president, past is prologue, will nominate someone who is in the mainstream," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said Sunday.
But several other Democrats are also pointing to other potential groundbreaking choices and candidates who don't hold judicial posts, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota and Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.

Republicans rally to block nominee

Meantime, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Monday swiftly shored up support from key Republicans for his push not to consider a Supreme Court nominee until a new president appoints one next year.
"We are in the midst of a presidential election and a vigorous debate within both political parties on the direction of the country, with the election less than nine months away," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. "I believe the best thing for the country is to trust the American people to weigh in on who should make a lifetime appointment that could reshape the Supreme Court for generations."
Another closely watched Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, agreed. "We should honor Justice Scalia's legacy, and we should put off a decision on his replacement until the newly-elected president can make his or her choice," he said.
Support from Portman and Toomey is critical because now four of the five GOP senators up for re-election in purple states back McConnell. Democratic leaders had hoped these potentially vulnerable senators would break with their leader under pressure from constituents who are anxious to see Washington function smoothly. Portman, for one, took the stand because he believes jobs and the economy and national security and terrorism are more important to Ohio voters that a single Supreme Court nomination.
Portman's Democratic opponent, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, blasted the incumbent's decision.
"Sen. Portman is failing to do his job, shirking his responsibilities to our nation, jeopardizing the institutions of our democracy and engaging in exactly the kind of dysfunctional behavior that frustrates Ohioans about Congress," Strickland said.
Two of the five at-risk Republicans, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin announced Sunday they want to hold off on a nominee. Only Mark Kirk of Illinois, perhaps the most endangered Republican in the Senate, hasn't announced his position.
Also Monday, two other senior Republicans Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Dan Coats from Indiana said a Supreme Court appointment should wait until after the presidential election.
The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said self-interested Republicans were playing politics with a cherished constitutional duty.
"Republicans are talking about the Republican playbook, not what the country needs, but what the Republican playbook says. This is the playbook we should follow, the Constitution of the United States," he told Wolf Blitzer on CNN.
Only one Republican, Susan Collins, a reliably moderate voice from Maine, stated publicly that it was "premature" to discuss who would replace Scalia since he just died. She said wants to know who Obama would nominate before deciding what to do.
"More than any other appointment upon which the Senate is called to pass judgment, nominees to the Supreme Court warrant in-depth consideration given the importance of their constitutional role and their lifetime tenure," she said in statement. "Our role in the Senate is to evaluate the nominee's temperament, intellect, experience, integrity, and respect for the Constitution and the rule of law."

Graham's choice: Orrin Hatch

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham would seem to be a gettable vote for Obama's Supreme Court choice, given his past support for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. But he told CNN Monday: "I don't think there's much of a chance that anybody is going to get confirmed."
He said Senate Democrats poisoned the well when they changed filibuster rules unilaterally to confirm lower court nominees -- and he said that election-year politics make it virtually impossible to find a pick everyone will be happy with.
"I haven't closed my mind to supporting somebody it just has got to be a consensus choice," Graham said. "The consensus choice has to get a majority of Republicans, and I just don't see that coming out of this White House."
Asked if there were any consensus choice, Graham said: "Probably not. Orrin Hatch is all I can think of."
When asked if he were a consensus choice, Hatch laughed and said: "I would not want them to choose me and then spend the next year or so praying that I'll die."