The death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday immediately set off a partisan battle over a vacancy that could reshape the Supreme Court for years to come, as Senate Republicans called on President Obama to let his successor fill the seat.
Within hours of Justice Scalia’s death, both sides began laying the groundwork for what could be a titanic confirmation struggle fueled by ideological interest groups. The surprise opening also jolted the presidential campaign and could shift the conversation toward the priorities each candidate would have in making such a selection.
Mr. Obama would be the first president since Reagan to fill three seats on the court. But Senate Republicans made clear they would not make it easy for him, arguing that with just 11 months left in office he should leave the choice to the winner of the November general election. With 54 seats in the Senate, Republicans have the power to block the confirmation of any nomination sent by Mr. Obama if they stick together.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican majority leader, said in a statement. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, agreed, citing “the huge divide in the country and the fact that this president, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to use the courts to circumvent Congress and push through his own agenda.”
Though the White House made no formal statement about a replacement, advisers to Mr. Obama made clear privately that he had no intention of leaving the matter to the next president. His Democratic allies made the case that Republicans would be irresponsible to block an appointment.
“It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic minority leader. “Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential constitutional responsibilities.”
Even without the instant standoff, the opening of a seat on the Supreme Court was sure to roil the presidential campaign. Both sides will use the vacancy to rouse the most fervent members of their political bases by demonstrating the stakes in the election. Republicans will likely talk about the need to stop Mr. Obama from using the court to advance his liberal agenda while Democrats will warn their supporters about the dangers of a Republican president making the selection.
The unexpected timing of the vacancy will force Mr. Obama to make a choice about how far he is willing to go to confront Republicans and inject social issues like abortion into the fall campaign. Will he opt for a relative moderate in hopes of winning over enough Republicans to actually seat a replacement despite Mr. McConnell’s warning? Or will he choose a more liberal candidate at the risk of being blocked on the theory that it might galvanize Democratic voters?
The situation also could prove complicated for Mr. McConnell, who since winning the majority in 2014 has labored to shed the obstructionist label and prove that his caucus can govern responsibly. Approving an Obama nominee could provoke a backlash from conservatives, but a prolonged battle would put Senate Republicans in the middle of a campaign where Mr. McConnell had hoped not to be.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Peter Baker