Senate GOP's big Supreme Court bet

Story highlights

  • Recent polling has given Republicans some comfort in their SCOTUS position
  • Sen. Johnson: 'It's entirely appropriate for the Senate to act by not acting'

Washington (CNN)Senate Republicans increasingly believe they'll be on much firmer political ground if they stop President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nomination in its tracks -- even if that means preventing confirmation hearings.

"I think it's entirely appropriate for the Senate to act by not acting," Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who is facing a tough re-election fight, told CNN.
GOP leaders believe the fight over the late Justice Antonin Scalia's successor will energize each party's base while independent voters will be divided on the subject, making the issue a wash in November's elections. And if the hardline prevents Obama from altering the ideological balance on the court, Republicans believe that's an even better outcome for their party.
    "It might be just as well not to have a hearing that ... might mislead the American people into thinking this is just about the qualifications of the candidate," Sen. Pat Toomey, a vulnerable Republican from Pennsylvania, told reporters Thursday, according to remarks provided his office. "Because it's bigger than that."
    Toomey added that the Supreme Court could operate with a vacancy, saying, "It's not that big a deal."
    Recent polling has given Republicans some comfort in taking that position. A CBS News poll released on Thursday showed that 47% of voters would like to see the next Supreme Court justice appointed by Obama before the elections; 46% wanted the next president to make the selection. Independent voters were evenly split as well. A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll had similar findings, with voters split along party lines.
    Top Republicans believe that the findings confirm that the Supreme Court vacancy will be a base motivator, but it won't change the complexion of key Senate races, which they argue will be more influenced by the economy, the war with ISIS and the presidential campaign.
    So publicly and privately, Republicans are beginning to argue that they'd have more to lose by holding hearings, which would give the President's choice a chance to shine in the national spotlight and let Democrats build momentum behind their nomination.
    With the GOP holding a narrow 54-46 Senate majority, and 24 seats up for re-election compared to 10 for the Democrats, Republicans have much to lose if their calculations are off-base. But GOP strategists now believe that, if anything, the Supreme Court fight will bring more conservative voters to the polls, helping shore up the right flank of some vulnerable Republicans, like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
    On Thursday, the Senate's No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said the GOP was facing no pressure to act and dismissed any concerns that the issue would be problematic for down-ticket races.
    "Well, I don't think we'll feel the pressure from, certainly, my constituents in Texas, and I think it's likely you're going to see it from The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the allies of the administration," Cornyn told a radio host in Lubbock, Texas.
    Cornyn added: "We've drawn the line in the sand and said it's not going to happen. And we just need to hold that position, and I'm confident we can."

    Dems warn GOP will cave

    Next week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will meet with the other 53 GOP senators for the first time since Scalia's death, giving the Republican leadership a chance to build consensus behind their strategy to deny the nominee a chance of even being considered.
    As the GOP digs in, Democrats are making their own calculation. Senior Democratic officials believe that the debate will shift sharply once the White House announces a nominee, whom they argue will be widely regarded as well-qualified for the post. As the Democratic public relations machine revs up, they believe that a larger share of independent voters will start siding with the White House's choice -- putting unrelenting pressure on swing-state Republicans and forcing them to revolt.
    "Sen. McConnell is leading his members into a box canyon," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. "They staked out an unsustainable position, and they won't be able to hold it."
    On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate from Alaska up for re-election, broke with her party's leadership and sided with the idea of giving the nominee a fair consideration.
    "I do believe that the nominee should get a hearing," Murkowski told reporters in Juneau. "That doesn't necessarily mean that that ends up in a vote. The purpose of the hearing is to determine whether or not this individual, based on their record, should be named to the highest court of the land."
    Two other moderates, including Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois, who faces a tough re-election this year, have not ruled out the idea of hearings. And both Democratic and GOP strategists believe that Kirk could have the most to lose given that he hails from a liberal state.
    Kirk has been mum all week on the matter, saying only that it's "unseemly" that the political debate erupted so soon after Scalia's death.
    But even if those GOP moderates did clamor for a hearing, they would be decidedly in the minority of their party.
    Johnson, the vulnerable Wisconsin Republican, said that he'd be fine with either having a hearing and casting an up-or-down vote -- or letting the nomination languish. Either way, he said, the nominee wouldn't get confirmed unless Obama chooses a "Scalia clone."
    "I'll continue to make the case that the most reasonable position at this point in time in history, the best course of action on something so incredibly important is to let the American people decide," Johnson said of his election-year argument.