The American public is deeply riven along -- wait for it -- partisan lines when it comes to whether or not the Senate should hold a vote to confirm a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. And that schism -- particularly how partisan the issue has already become -- gives Senate Republicans all the assurance they need to hold the line on refusing to confirm a new justice until Obama leaves the White House.
Forty-three percent of respondents said that the Senate should vote this year on Obama's preferred replacement for Scalia, while 42 percent said they should wait until a new president is sworn in to fill the vacancy. And, how's this for polarization parity? Eighty-one percent of Democrats believe the Senate vote should happen while Obama is in office, while 81 percent of Republicans think that the vote can (and should) wait until next year under a new president. Among independents, those pesky on-the-fence voters, sentiment is split as well: 43 percent prefer a vote this year, while 42 percent favor a confirmation vote next year.
The key takeaway here -- aside from the obvious one about how every issue is immediately viewed by the public through their particular partisan lens -- is that people are divided right down the middle on what the right next step is when it comes to filling Scalia's vacancy. That means there is likely to be very little blowback if and when President Obama's pick doesn't wind up getting a vote before the November election. There is no groundswell for a vote out in the country.
So, if you are, say, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and you are looking at this NBC data, you are left with two conclusions:
- We won't be hurt among independents for not holding a vote, and
- Our base will be thrilled if we don't hold a confirmation vote.
Even if McConnell was less politically savvy than he is, it's pretty obvious what his next steps will be based on those conclusions: Insist that a vote isn't going to happen and that the prerogative to pick the deciding vote on the court, which is currently split 4-4 between liberals and conservatives, should fall to the next president.
As I've written, I think McConnell made a mistake by so publicly telegraphing his plan to kill any nomination. But, these numbers suggest that McConnell's underlying sentiment is one which will do him (and the party) some good with the GOP base and do him (and the party) basically no harm with the broader electorate. Might the party need to throw a bone to the likes of blue-state Senators like Pat Toomey (Pa.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Mark Kirk (Ill.), all of whom are up for reelection this fall? Maybe -- and they could do that by holding hearings and then refusing to schedule a vote. But, the fact that independent voters are divided on the issue seems to suggest a lack of urgency.
Put simply: Don't expect McConnell or the rest of Senate Republicans to move off their current "no vote" posture. There's absolutely no political reason for them to.