Obama to meet with GOP leaders on court fight

Kathleen Hennessey
Associated Press

Washington — President Barack Obama met face-to-face Tuesday with the Senate Republican leaders who vow to block his Supreme Court nominee — no matter who it is — with the hope of keeping the seat open for a Republican president to fill next year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, arrived for the awkward, Oval Office sit-down promising to hold the line against any election-year nominee. Democrats, meanwhile, resolved to keep the pressure on, looking for cracks in the united front.

The gathering was the first time the leaders have met since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death last month set off a clash over the Supreme Court vacancy.

Along with Obama, McConnell and Grassley, Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the committee, gathered around a coffee table in the Oval Office, smiles frozen to their faces.

The men posed silently and briefly for photos before the meeting began.

When reporters got too close to Grassley, Biden joked, “Don’t hurt Senator Grassley. We need him.”

The leaders ignored a reporter’s question about whether their minds were open to changing their position, as aides shooed reporters from the room.

At another time, the gathering might have been a nod to the tradition of at least limited cooperation in naming and confirming justices to the nation’s highest court. The president might have floated potential candidates; Senate opposition might have come armed with their own preferred names.

But in the current standoff, gestures of collaboration seem moot. Neither side has indicated it will come with much more than talking points.

“Look, the president is open to a discussion, but it would represent a pretty dramatic reversal in position for Mr. McConnell, who has said that the president shouldn’t put anybody forward, to come with a list of potential nominees,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday. “It makes it hard for him to engage constructively, until they change that position.”

Before heading to the White House Tuesday morning, McConnell made clear he would not budge.

In remarks on the Senate floor, he said he planned to use the meeting to “reiterate that the American people will have a voice on the vacancy at the Supreme Court as they choose the next president.”

He added that the White House might want to fill out the meeting agenda with other topics, such drug-abuse legislation.

McConnell also promised no movement when he addressed House Republicans at their weekly Tuesday morning meeting.

Several of those in attendance said he even used the phrase “Read my lips,” made famous by President George H.W. Bush when he promised during his 1988 campaign to not raise taxes — a promise he later abandoned under Democratic pressure.

While the standoff continues, the president spent a significant part of the weekend reading through files on potential nominees and considering his options, Earnest said, adding that the president has not settled on a short list and could still add names to the mix.

Amid the unusually contentious circumstances, the president tapped a close adviser to lead the selection process within the White House. Senior Adviser Brian Deese, who previously led climate change negotiations, will work closely with White House counsel Neil Eggleston throughout the process, the White House said.

For now, the White House is focused on demonstrating that it is making an effort to consult with the Senate — even if there’s not much give and take. On Tuesday, Obama plans to discuss with Republican leaders the historical precedent for confirming justices in a presidential election year, Earnest said.

“One of the things the president is interested in discussing is, actually, what happened in 1988,” Earnest said, noting Anthony Kennedy’s election-year confirmation to the court. Kennedy had been nominated by President Ronald Reagan the preceding year. Both McConnell and Grassley voted in favor of Kennedy’s confirmation.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been quick to note the history they find relevant. In separate op-eds published in home-state media outlets on Tuesday, McConnell and Grassley both wrote that Biden, a former Senate Judiciary chairman, once endorsed the idea of suspending consideration of a nominee during an election year, presumably in an effort to keep the court from becoming overly politicized.

“The president certainly has the constitutional authority to nominate a justice in an election year, and he intends to use it,” Grassley wrote in the Des Moines Register. “In the Senate, we have the equal constitutional authority to consent or withhold consent. This is not a new or even partisan idea.”