Mounting fear within the GOP that billionaire Donald Trump will go down in flames and take the party with him is giving added impetus to speculation that the Senate might vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee shortly after the election.
There is virtually no chance that the Senate will hold hearings, let alone a vote, on Obama’s choice of Merrick B. Garland, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals in D.C., to succeed the late Antonin Scalia on the High Court before the November election.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and other GOP leaders harbored visions of eventually confirming a new justice with the same conservative views as Scalia. And until recently, they were reasonably confident that a new Republican president would send the GOP-controlled Senate such a nominee early next year.
To that end, 52 of 54 Senate Republicans – including Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Charles Grassley of Iowa – are standing firm in opposing conducting hearings on Garland’s nomination. Republicans argued that there is plenty of precedent for blocking a Supreme Court nomination in the midst of a heated presidential campaign.
But that was before the Republican Party erupted into civil war and polls showed that Trump is so unpopular with more than two thirds of Americans that he would almost certainly lose to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or even Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in a general election contest.
Trump has enraged many in his party with his mud-slinging and personal attacks on Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the seemingly sanctioned violence at some of his campaign events, and his off-the-wall and frequently shifting pronouncements on abortion, nuclear weapons proliferation and foreign policy.
If Trump manages to prevail at the GOP national convention in Cleveland this summer and becomes the party’s standard-bearer, political experts say that the odds are good that the Democrats not only will retain control of the White House, but will also win back control of the Senate.
As the Senate returns on Monday from a two-week recess, many Republicans are pondering an unhappy scenario in which a newly inaugurated President Clinton nominates someone other than Garland who is both younger and more progressive than the moderate-to-liberal 63-year-old jurist, according to a Washington Post informal survey of Senate Republicans.
“Even as they hold the line in refusing to grant the president’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing before November, two dozen Republican senators either support or do not rule out allowing a vote to confirm Merrick Garland during the lame-duck session,” James Hohmann of the Washington Post wrote today.
For now, 52 of the 54 Republican senators said they opposed holding a hearing for Garland over the coming seven month. The two who are open to hearings are Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois, both of whom face tough reelection campaigns and are feeling pressure from Democrats and independents back home.
Roughly 16 Republicans indicated a willingness to meet with Garland in their offices, but only out of courtesy. However, Collins, Kirk and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona have said they would be willing to vote on Garland’s nomination during the two months after the election before a new president and Congress are sworn in.
And an additional 20 Republicans, including a handful of leaders and committee chairs, declined to publicly rule out a hearing and vote after the election, according to The Post survey.
In the meantime, Democrats are continuing to apply pressure to the Republicans with a series of protests and events in Washington and in targeted GOP districts. And the Obama administration is helping to prep Garland for his meetings with Republicans and for possible formal hearings after the election.
“We are making steady but significant progress,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters last Friday, according to the New York Times. “Inches will turn into feet. Feet will turn into miles, and, hopefully, Judge Garland will turn into Justice Garland.”