Mitch McConnell is not budging.
No matter how much pressure President Obama and Democrats try to apply, McConnell’s allies say the Senate majority leader will never agree to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge, to succeed Antonin Scalia as a Supreme Court justice.
Even Republicans who disagree with him think that McConnell (R-Ky.) will not retreat from that defiant stance. “I don’t see the majority leader changing his mind on this issue. He believes strongly that this should be a decision made by the next president,” said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), one of two Republicans to call for hearings on Garland.
Since Scalia’s death, and McConnell’s pronouncement hours later, Democrats have been stunned by the senator’s determined position not to consider any nominee — and his flat-out refusal to extend the traditional courtesy of meeting with the nominee.
They have long viewed McConnell as purely a political tactician who always does what is best for his party’s chances at controlling the Senate. With Garland’s introduction, Democrats began pillorying Republican incumbents for rejecting any Obama choice out of hand just because there is an election eight months away.
By Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after Obama introduced Garland as his pick, Democrats asserted that the ground had shifted after several Republicans signaled they would at least meet with the nominee.
“The ice is cracking,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said three hours after the Rose Garden ceremony. “You’ve got a whole number of Republicans who are now willing to sit down and talk to the nominee, and I think given how strong a nominee it is, more ice is going to crack soon.”
For Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Garland nomination fight could be his last big battle before he retires at the end of the year. Reid on Wednesday relaunched the Democrats’ “McConnell Backdown Watch” in news releases and on social media.
But those who know McConnell say his strategy is the synthesis of two of his lifelong, overlapping interests: political machinations of the Senate in general and the Supreme Court confirmation process in particular.
On Wednesday, the GOP leader delivered a speech at a lunchtime gathering of social conservatives. The Weyrich Lunch, named for the late Paul Weyrich, an original leader of the Christian conservative movement, draws leaders of top religious organization who often use the meeting to criticize McConnell for what they see as his traditional establishment views.
But in a random quirk of the schedule, McConnell’s once-a-year appearance turned into a rally-the-troops event Wednesday to deny Obama the chance to replace Scalia, who was an iconic figure among movement conservatives.
The presidential environment, with front-runner Donald Trump dominating the process, has left many social conservatives fearful that their standard-bearer won’t share their values. Republicans think that the Scalia vacancy will at least encourage the religious voters to show up in November — even if it’s just to save the Senate GOP majority as a check against the possibility that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton wins and gets the opportunity to appoint more liberals to the Supreme Court.
GOP advisers agree that public and private polling shows a 2-to-1 ratio in favor of holding hearings and possible votes on the Garland nomination. But at the same time, they say that the intensity level on this issue is low and that voters are focused on the economy and national security as the most critical issues. The backlash from conservative voters, Republicans say, would be far worse than the small gain from going through the process with the nomination.
So far, endangered Republican incumbents remain on board.
“I’m hearing a lot back home about this, from both sides. I mean, the intensity level is high on the Republican side, too,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who visited seven counties over the past week and heard “intense” views from liberals and conservatives. “What I hear is both sides expressing their strong views.”
Schumer predicted that McConnell is making a temporary play to appease conservatives. “He’s probably better off first making the stand and then having to buckle to public pressure than not making the stand,” he said.
But that also neglects McConnell’s own fascination with the Supreme Court since his stint as a staffer for Sen. Marlow Cook (R-Ky.), who appointed a 27-year-old McConnell as his point man for several of President Richard M. Nixon’s Supreme Court nominations.
Cook served as Nixon’s lead defender of Clement Haynsworth, whose nomination was blocked in November 1969 amid questions about whether he should have recused himself in cases involving his stock holdings. Nixon’s next nominee also failed to make it past the Senate.
Cook encouraged McConnell to write a piece for the Kentucky Law Journal soon after those nominations. The young Senate legislative aide wrote that too often senators hid behind false attacks on trumped-up charges when their real motive was simply the political blockade of an opposing president’s choice.
“Senators sought to hide their political objections beneath a veil of charges about fitness, ethics and other professional qualifications,” McConnell wrote.
Political considerations, he said in the paper, should not disqualify a nominee.
Now, 45 years later, McConnell has reversed that position but has at least made clear the rationale for not even holding a hearing: the next election.
“This person will not be confirmed,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. “So there’s no reason going through some motions and pretending like it’s going to happen, because it’s not going to happen.”