Washington: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah said on Tuesday that he would back President Donald Trump’s push to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cementing all but monolithic Republican support six weeks before the presidential election for confirming a new justice who would tilt the court decisively to the right.
Romney’s decision capped off an extraordinarily swift and enthusiastic rally by Republicans around Trump’s position that underscored his iron grip on the party four years into his presidency. But it also reflected the political bargain that has been driving Republicans for much of the past four years.
Republican senators have loyally stood behind the president at every turn, even as he trampled party principles, shattered institutional norms and made crass statements - all in the service of empowering their own party to install a generation of conservative judges in the nation’s federal courts. Now, with the biggest prize of all in reach - a third seat further tipping the Supreme Court to the right - they are rushing to collect on their bet, even if it ends up being the last thing they do before they lose their Senate majority, Trump loses the presidency, or both.
Neither party is sure how the court fight will affect the election. “At this point, I would say that our conference is committed to moving forward,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican. No one more clearly embodied the trade-off than Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, who may best represent the conventional Republican Party that Trump has delighted in tearing down.
Romney has made no secret of his distaste for Trump; he was the only Republican to vote to convict and remove the president from office during his impeachment trial in February. But with deeply held religious beliefs and conservative principles, Romney was not about to pass up an opportunity to cement a court that could limit abortion rights, further empower business interests and potentially strike down far-reaching federal programs that future Democratic administrations may try to enact.
Senators publicly undecided
“My liberal friends have over many decades gotten very used to the idea of having a liberal court, but that’s not written in the stars,” Romney said, despite the fact that the Supreme Court has had a majority of Republican nominees for decades. “I know a lot of people are saying, ‘Gosh, we don’t want that change.’ I understand the energy associated with that perspective. But it’s also appropriate for a nation that is, if you will, centre-right to have a court which reflects center-right points of view.”
With Trump planning to wait until Saturday to announce his nominee at the White House, Senate leaders remained publicly undecided about whether to try to rush through a confirmation vote before the election on Nov. 3. But Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have begun privately making preparations for a confirmation process that could play out in as little as a month, a drastically abbreviated timeline compared with other recent Supreme Court nominees.
Democrats, conceding that they did not have the power to stop it, unleashed a torrent of anger and parliamentary tactics intended to disrupt Senate business. They accused Republicans of gross hypocrisy, pointing to their refusal in early 2016 to consider Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, because it was an election year. “We can’t have business as usual when Republicans are destroying the institution, as they have done,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the minority leader.
But Republicans were unapologetic. In the four years since Trump took office, they have rarely parted ways with him, terrified of drawing a presidential rebuke on Twitter, unwilling to alienate his enthusiastic supporters who make up a crucial section of the party’s base and worried about a backlash that could cost them their seats. They were not about to start when it came to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, a galvanizing issue for Republicans, especially socially conservative and religious Christian voters turned off by Trump’s persona.
“God created Republicans to do three things, and really only three things: cut taxes, kill foreign enemies and confirm right-facing judges,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist working for two of the party’s most endangered incumbents: Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado. “Only confirming judges has the potential to unite socially conservative populists and squishy corporatists with equal enthusiasm.”
In this case, Republicans were also contending with the unequivocal stances they took four years ago against confirming Garland, when they argued that voters should have a say in who filled the vacancy created with nearly a year left in his presidency. A handful of senators, including Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had made even more recent statements saying they would not fill a vacancy this election year either. (Republicans say their positions now are not, for the most part, inconsistent, because their objections in 2016 were based in part on the fact the White House and Senate were controlled by opposite parties.)
There is also considerable political risk for Republicans. Early public polling suggests that voters believe the winner of the election ought to be the one to fill the seat, and they could punish Trump and Republican senators on the ballot for their power play, potentially costing the party the White House and the Senate majority.
By Tuesday, it appeared that Republican leaders and Trump would hold defections in their own party to just two: Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who have said they would not support filling the vacancy so close to the election.
At the White House, Trump and his advisers continued to contemplate a handful of possible nominees, all women, before the announcement on Saturday. But while Trump enjoys creating a public crescendo about his choices, and is likely to meet with Judge Barbara Lagoa of the 11th Circuit, four people briefed on his thinking said the decision was close to made in favour of Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago.
Trump likes Barrett, a favourite of anti-abortion conservatives, and has been receptive to advisers’ descriptions of her as a female version of Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016. She was at the White House on Tuesday for a second consecutive day.