Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee are resisting President Barack Obama’s call for a swift confirmation of his choice for Supreme Court, opening a rift between the parties even before the nominee has even been named.
Democrats contend that Republicans are planning to slow-walk an inevitable confirmation. The GOP has an incentive to do so: Conservative activists have vowed to use the court fight to raise money, fire up their base, identify troops and rebuild their movement, with millions of dollars in advertising planned.
The president’s pick is expected to be announced late in the coming week, or early in the next one.
Obama has told the Senate leadership he would like a confirmation vote by the month-long August recess, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 8.
“I'd like to give them a little bit of lead time so that they can get prepared” for the court’s opening on Oct. 5, Obama told C-SPAN’s Steve Scully on Friday.
But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told the ABC News Webcast “Top Line” on Thursday that finishing before the August recess “would be rushing it.”
“I really don’t think that’s feasible,” Sessions said.
Sessions has said he wants 60 days from the announcement to the start of hearings. When Republicans were in the Senate majority, they called for about 60 days for the whole confirmation process.
One Republican Judiciary Committee aide cracked: “What do they have to do, find the coffeemaker?”
The president told C-SPAN he hopes “that we can have hearings in July so that we end up before Congress breaks for the summer – have somebody in place.”
“One of the things I would prefer not to see happen is that these confirmation hearings drag on and somebody has to hit the ground running and then take their seat in October without having the time to wrap their mind around the fact that they are going to be a Supreme Court Justice,” Obama said. “[Chief] Justice Roberts, Justice [Samuel] Alito, it took them approximately 70 days to get confirmed from the time that they were announced. And yes, I think that's a fair timeframe for us to work with as well.”
Republicans say that they may also need the month of September to work on the confirmation, and that the only timetable they agree with is confirmation before the new term begins.
“Talk about putting the cart before the horse,” said an aide to one top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “That's awfully presumptuous of the president to call for a swift confirmation process when he hasn't even made a nomination. If he doesn't make a nomination by the early part of this week, there's no way they'll be confirmed prior to August recess, given the amount of time we've historically allotted to vetting Supreme Court nominations.”
One top Senate leadership aide said there’s “no magic formula” for how long the confirmation investigation and hearings should take.
“It could be someone unknown, and you need some time to investigate who the person it,” the aide said. “Or maybe it’s a judge who’s been on the bench for 20 years, and suddenly you have to read a bunch of transcripts. Everyone’s different.”
Republicans argue that the White House wants to use its political power to short-cut the process. An aide to one Republican on the Judiciary Committee said his boss’s message in a recent conversation with the president was: “Don’t jam us.”
“We worry that the president will use his popularity to name whoever he wants, whip up his political machine, then hammer on Senate Democrats to expedite the hearings,” the aide said. “Given the diminished status of Republicans, there’s not much you can do about it.”
The current view of another key Republican on the Judiciary Committee, according to an aide, is: “We obviously will be insisting on ample time to prepare, which is a considerable task, and won't feel obligated to meet an arbitrary pre-August hearing deadline if it’s not feasible to do so. … We're approaching the point where precedent argues in favor of waiting until at least August [for a hearing]. The ultimate deadline of October 1 is reasonable under the circumstances, but an attempt to rush hearings in the Senate at the expense of preparation and substantive questioning could be met with resistance, if warranted. August or September hearings shouldn't be taken off the table.”
The president’s timeline is possible: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was named on June 14, 1993, and confirmed on Aug. 3, 1993. Chief Justice Roberts was named on July 19, 2005, and confirmed on Sept. 29, 2005.
Back in 2005, Republicans were in the Senate majority and held the White House, and were pushing for a quick confirmation. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), then the majority whip, said on the floor the day after Roberts was named: “Slow-walking the process beyond historical norms and engaging in a paper chase simply to delay a timely up-or-down vote are not hallmarks of a fair process.”