President Obama predicted Wednesday that “sheepish” Senate Republicans will retreat under public pressure from their pledge to block his nominee for the Supreme Court, as progressive allies of the White House began mounting a campaign to force a confirmation vote.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans don’t seem fully committed to their vow not to hold any hearings on the president’s eventual nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I don’t expect Mitch McConnell to say that is the case today,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he has spoken to several Republican senators. “There’s not a lot of vigor when they defend the position they’re taking. They’re pretty sheepish about it.”
All Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signed a letter Tuesday saying they won’t hold a confirmation hearing on any nominee put forward by Mr. Obama for the Supreme Court. They said the next president should nominate a candidate in 2017.
Upon choosing a nominee within the next few weeks, Mr. Obama plans to take his fight to the American people to pressure Republicans to hold hearings and a vote. Progressive groups were joining forces Wednesday with the White House, holding events, press calls and petition drives to turn up the political heat on the GOP.
Mr. Obama said of Senate Republicans: “I recognize the politics are hard for them because the easier thing to do is to give in to the most extreme voices within their party and stand pat and do nothing. But that’s not our job. Our job is to fulfill our constitutional duties.”
Amid the growing furor, the White House floated a trial balloon, leaking word that moderate Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, a Hispanic and former federal judge, is among those being vetted for the lifetime job. Some progressives immediately slammed Mr. Sandoval as “anti-labor” and called him a “country club Republican.”
Despite the president’s prediction that the GOP will cave, Republican lawmakers insisted Wednesday their position won’t change. Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a member of the Judiciary Committee, rejected the argument that the GOP’s action is “unprecedented.”
“Not since 1932 has the United States Senate in a presidential election year confirmed a Supreme Court nominee to a vacancy that arose in that presidential election year,” Mr. Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “This isn’t a partisan issue. This is about the people’s having a chance to express their views.”
Mr. Obama brushed aside comments made by Vice President Joseph R. Biden when he was Senate Judiciary chairman in 1992, that a president shouldn’t nominate a Supreme Court candidate in an election year.
“First of all, we know senators say stuff all the time,” Mr. Obama said. “Second of all, these were comments [in 1992] where there was no actual nomination. That’s not the same. It has no application to the actual situation that we have right now.”
The president said he will wage a public relations battle so that “the American people are going to have the ability to gauge whether the person I nominate is well within the mainstream, is a good jurist, is somebody who’s worthy of sitting on the Supreme Court.”
“I think it will be very difficult for Mr. McConnell to explain if the public concludes that this person is very well qualified, that the Senate should stand in the way simply for political reasons,” Mr. Obama said.
If Senate Republicans don’t back down, he said, “then invariably what we’re going to see is a further deterioration of any president to make any judicial appointments.”
“The credibility of the court itself is diminished because it is seen as an extension of our politics,” Mr. Obama said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president’s list of candidates isn’t complete. Among those mentioned as possible candidates are Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the first black woman to hold that post; and Judges Sri Srinivasan and Patricia Millett and Chief Judge Merrick Garland, all of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Some progressives said there would be social “chaos” if Mr. Obama’s nominee is blocked, while some constitutional law specialists accused the senators of deliberately violating their oath to uphold the Constitution.
“It is the duty of the president to appoint, the duty of the Senate to consider,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “It is their constitutional duty.”