Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is one of the wiliest political operators to ever skulk the halls of the Capitol. When he speaks, I listen very carefully. For he is a master builder of rhetorical mouse traps that try to ensnare the subject of his droning oratory. McConnell’s floor speech on Tuesday calling on President Obama to not appoint a nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia was another superb example.
Pity his actions and those of congressional Republicans will add the nation’s highest court as a stop on Washington’s well-paved path to dysfunction.
The foundation of McConnell’s remarks was the June 1992 floor speech by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) urging then-President George H.W. Bush to not to fill a Supreme Court vacancy until after the November elections IF a justice happened to resign. McConnell then used Obama’s lament earlier this month about his “inability to reduce the polarization and meanness in our politics” to finish his trap.
He has every right to nominate someone. Even if doing so will inevitably plunge our nation into another bitter and avoidable struggle, that is his right. Even if he never expects that nominee to actually be confirmed but rather to wield as an electoral cudgel, that is his right. But he has also has the right to make a different choice. He can let the people decide and make this an actual legacy-building moment rather than just another campaign roadshow.
In each of those sentences, McConnell acknowledges the constitutional authority of the president. He renders himself mute on the GOP-controlled chamber’s own constitutional duty of advice and consent. He absolves himself and his fellow Republicans of any responsibility for generating the “bitter and avoidable struggle[s]” that have clouded Obama’s tenure. And then McConnell gleefully (albeit joylessly in tone) lays the blame for the impending rancor and chaos that will result from this Senate-induced mayhem at the president’s feet.
As galling as this is, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that it would not hold even hearings if Obama picked a nominee. And Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.) declared he would not meet the president’s choice. “I don’t see the point in going through the motions, if we know what the outcome is going to be,” he said. This ugly spectacle is no different than Donald Trump’s stupefyingly successful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get worse or sink any lower, they do.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) bemoaned this state of affairs when I asked him about it on “Morning Joe” on Wednesday. After our segment, he elaborated.
I’m disheartened because in an already dysfunctional setting, [where] we have already seen six years of Republican obstruction of the president’s attempts to nominate and advance candidates for courts from the district court to the circuit court, this is just one further step in the grinding, steady spin downwards to the seventh level of hell where we’re showing not just the American people, but the world that our constitutional order really is struggling to even function.
In 1991, as a [Yale] law student, I was an intern for then-Sen. Joe Biden. And the very divisive Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings had recently happened. And you could feel the shadow of that over the committee. You could feel the tension and difficulty between career staff, between the members themselves. And now, as a senator here decades later, we are already several steps farther down. We’ve had difficulty with the appropriations process. We’ve had difficulty with moving even common-sense, basic legislation. For this dysfunction to now infect the third branch [of government], for the seven-year standoff between Obama and Congress to now completely seize up the Supreme Court as well, is truly disappointing.
In the Oval Office, the president echoed the senator’s sentiments. Obama said he would fulfill his constitutional duty to name a Supreme Court nominee. He said the American people should judge whether that person deserves elevation. And he said he believed ”it will be very difficult for Mr. McConnell” to maintain his current do-nothing stance.
In a rational world — that long-ago place where vigorous debate, compromise and good works on behalf of the American people were paramount — the president would be correct. But after seven years of single-minded and needless obstruction by Republicans, I wish I could share Obama’s optimism over the ultimate outcome.
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