By CARL HULSE and MARK LANDLERFEB. 14, 2016 The New York Times
WASHINGTON — An epic Washington political battle took shape on Sunday after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia as Senate Republicans dug in and refused to act on any Supreme Court nomination by President Obama. But the White House vowed to name a nominee within weeks.
Two senators seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, both said unequivocally that the Republican-controlled Senate should ignore any nomination sent by Mr. Obama to Capitol Hill.
“The president can nominate whoever he wants, but the Senate is not going to act, and that’s pretty clear,” Mr. Rubio said on “Fox News Sunday.” “So, we can keep debating it but we’re not moving forward on it, period.”
In an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. Cruz, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: “Let the election decide it. If the Democrats want to replace this nominee, they need to win the election.”
Their comments followed declarations by Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and the majority leader, that President Obama should not try to fill the vacancy left by Justice Scalia, who died on Saturday in Texas, given that less than a year remains in the president’s second term.
That view is backed by Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would consider any nominee. The stance puts Senate Republicans in the politically charged position of defying the president on a crucial court opening amid the heat of the presidential campaign — and while also trying to hold on to their majority in the Senate.
Democrats immediately sought to pressure Republicans, saying that a refusal to even consider a nominee would amount to an outrageous act of obstructionism — a charge that has been leveled at Mr. McConnell in the past with some success. Democrats predicted that a backlash from the public, particularly in the swing states where Republicans need to win to hold on to control of the Senate, could eventually prompt reconsideration by Mr. McConnell.
“I think there is at least a 50-50 chance that pressure from the Republican Senate caucus will force McConnell to reverse himself and at least hold hearings and a vote,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and a senior member of the Judiciary Committee.
In choosing a nominee, Mr. Obama faces his own complicated calculus: he could pick a liberal option and all but assure there would be no vote in the Senate, or he could choose a moderate, like Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-American jurist whom he named to the United States Court of Appeals and who was confirmed by a vote of 97 to 0 by the Senate in May 2013. That would increase the pressure on Senate Republicans to allow a vote.
It was not yet clear which way President Obama was leaning. But some former White House officials said they would advocate a nominee with a proven record of support in Congress as a way of laying bare the purely political nature of the Republican opposition.
“There will be many opinions on this and a lot of good candidates,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama. “But I would favor sitting appellate judges like Srinivasan or Jane Kelly from the Eighth Circuit, who have cleared the Senate unanimously.”
Judge Kelly, a former federal public defender in Iowa who was in Mr. Obama’s class at Harvard Law School, was named to the Court of Appeals by him in 2013. Like Judge Srinivasan, she was confirmed by the Senate unanimously — in her case, 96 to 0.
Another potential issue for the White House is how to handle the Democratic primary. Any nominee from Mr. Obama for the Supreme Court would become a leading Supreme Court nominee for a future Democratic president. Still, Mr. Axelrod said he did not expect Mr. Obama to consult either Hillary Clinton or Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont about his decision.
“I don’t believe the next president would be bound by this appointment, nor do I feel he needs to consult with the candidates,” he said.
The shock of Justice Scalia’s death and the battle over whether to proceed with a confirmation, which will likely last months, threatened to upend Mr. McConnell’s careful plans to show that the Senate was working again after years of dysfunction. Republicans were eager for a relatively calm year leading into the election, but Mr. Scalia’s death ended those hopes.
Democrats said that if Mr. McConnell persisted in trying to block a nomination, he should anticipate little cooperation from them moving forward.
“If McConnell stonewalls, we will empty the arsenal,” said one top Democratic official, who requested anonymity to discuss party strategy. “We will make sure this is seen as the radical, unprecedented act of obstruction that it is.”
Democrats said that they would welcome the opportunity to confirm a justice who would reshape the ideological makeup of the court with so many crucial decisions looming. But they said a fight over Republicans dismissing a nominee without a hearing or a vote played to their political advantage and would motivate voters both in the presidential contest and the crucial Senate races in states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
Republicans said that the fight would energize their voters as well and that they would face a conservative revolt if they did proceed with a nominee, allowing Mr. Obama a late-term victory in potentially reshaping the court for years.
For Mr. Obama, the prospect of a battle for the ideological soul of the nation’s highest court drastically transforms a final year that had been shaping up as an extended exercise in legacy-building.
Mr. Obama was informed of Justice Scalia’s death while on a golf course in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where he is spending a leisurely long weekend with childhood friends from Hawaii. His six-day swing to the West Coast had been replete with images of a president in his last lap, defending his record, raising money for other Democratic candidates, and announcing largely symbolic steps to secure his achievements.
Last week, Mr. Obama visited Springfield, Ill., and addressed the state assembly not far from where he announced his candidacy in February 2007. At fund-raisers in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, he spoke of his desire to remain politically relevant after he leaves office and lamented the fact that voters appear so angry, even though, he insisted, “the country is indisputably, demonstrably better off than when I took office in just about every measure.”