How Republicans Can Block Stephen Breyer’s Replacement
The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. So far, so good, given past Senators have changed the rules for judicial nominees to get across the finish line with just 51 votes. The so-called nuclear option is meant as a last resort, but with the exception of Chief Justice John Roberts, none of the current conservative Justices cleared a 60-vote benchmark.
But the nuclear option can go into motion only if the Judiciary Committee reports the nomination to the floor, a procedural move that says whether a majority on the committee recommends the full Senate consider the pick. Well, in a little-noticed backroom deal that took more than a month to hammer out, McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to a power-sharing plan in February that splits committee membership, staffs and budgets in half. (A full nonpartisan analysis from the Congressional Research Service regarding the current process for nominees is here.)
Why does this matter? If all 11 Republican members of the Judiciary Committee oppose Biden’s pick and all 11 Democrats back her, the nomination goes inert. (A pretty safe bet in a committee where at least half of the Republican members have White House ambitions of their own.) The nomination doesn’t die, but it does get parked until a lawmaker—historically, the Leader of the party—brings it to the floor for four hours of debate.
A majority of the Senate—51 votes, typically—can then put debate about the issue on the calendar for the next day. But that’s the last easy part. When the potential pick comes to the floor again, it’s not as a nomination. At that point, it’s a motion to discharge, a cloture motion that requires 60 votes. In other words, 10 Republicans would have to resurrect the nomination of someone already blocked in the Judiciary Committee.
Given this is an election year and Republicans have historically shown they’re not willing to give Democrats any wins on the Supreme Court in such a politically charged environment, there’s a good chance that Biden’s nominee spends her summer waiting for invites that never come from GOP lawmakers asking her in for typically cordial and informal coffees.
So, yes, Biden may get to nominate a pick for the Supreme Court. But there’s no guarantee that the full Senate will take it up. After all, McConnell successfully rejected Merrick Garland’s nomination in 2016 and waited for Donald Trump to win the White House to install a replacement for Antonin Scalia. McConnell narrowly carved out selected history and dug his heels in that he wouldn’t bring Garland up for a vote. There was simply nothing Democrats could do about it.
And given the rules of the Senate as they stand, a resolute Republican Party can pull a sequel to the Garland nomination. Sure, the Democrats could try to change the power-sharing agreement, but as the debate on voting rights showed us in recent weeks, one hold-out voice among Democrats in favor of the filibuster can tank the plan with little consequence. Which means all of the odds-making about who might get the call from White House Counsel in the coming days, who might get tapped to sherpa the nomination through the Senate or even what this means for the next term are all likely for naught. Republicans, should they want to, can sink this nominee. And if history is predictive, that’s exactly what they’ll do.
In 2013, Reid invoked the “nuclear option,” a historic move that changed a long-standing Senate rule, dropping the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster from 60 to a simple majority for executive appointments and most judicial nominations — a decision he justified because of trouble getting through court confirmations in the latter half of the Obama Administration.
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Author: H. A. Goodman