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Republicans Seek To Block Obama From Naming Scalia Successor


The death of Justice Antonin Scalia has added a new dimension to the presidential campaign. Republican candidates and senators want to make sure President Obama does not get to name Scalia's successor. Democrats say the country shouldn't have to wait more than a year to fill the vacancy, and the Republicans don't get to pick and choose when to follow the Constitution. Joining us to walk through the politics of this are NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro and NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis. Hi, you guys.



SHAPIRO: Domenico, start by explaining what the impact so far has been of Scalia's death on the presidential race. We saw the statements the candidates put out over the weekend. What's the real impact?

MONTANARO: Obviously a stark split. I mean, you have Republicans saying he's one of the greatest Supreme Court justices of all time and Democrats saying that they want to push somebody through, Republicans, of course, saying that they don't want to have somebody pushed through by President Obama. But this really does raise the stakes in this presidential election. There are two things that presidents really can impact on their own - foreign policy and Supreme Court justices. You have 11 months remaining in President Obama's term, and if he gets no one through, that really does raise the stakes for what could be an appointment by the next president that could shape social issues for the next generation.

SHAPIRO: Everybody always assumed that there would be at least one vacancy on the Supreme Court on the next presidency, and yet, the fact that there now is one, does that actually make this a top issue for voters? And if so, Republicans over Democrats - is this something people are really going to cast their ballots on?

MONTANARO: Well - and you usually see this as something that is a big deal for activists, right? I mean, this is not something that, you know - it's a vague concept for most voters that this is something that could take place, but it will be front and center as a main issue, for sure, in the next coming months.

SHAPIRO: Sue, control of the Senate is also at stake in this election. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he will block any effort to name Scalia's successor. What are the implications for that in terms of senators from swing states and control of the Senate as a whole?

DAVIS: Right. So Republicans have a four-seat majority in the Senate, and they are very much trying to defend that this November. What is interesting about the makeup of Senate races this year is the map to holding the Senate runs directly through the presidential battleground states. Republicans are defending seven states, and six of them Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012.

So these Republican senators in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire - it's not just about appealing to the conservative base. They need to appeal to centrist, swing-state, independent voters who look at this kind of stuff and just think it's Washington obstruction; it's just blocking; its business as usual. So they're in a kind of tricky position.

What we are seeing, though, is these senators - Rob Portman of Ohio, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire - are coming out behind Mitch McConnell and saying, we agree; this is too big a decision to have in an election year; we should wait until the next president. Now, whether voters look at them and see that as a negative is an open question now.

SHAPIRO: We should probably remind people, one-third of the Senate seats are up every two years, and so that's why it varies which states are important at any given election.

DAVIS: Yes. And in this particular election climate, more Republicans are defending more competitive states.

SHAPIRO: Domenico, if Scalia's successor is not confirmed, there will be eight justices on the Supreme Court perhaps for a year. Has that ever happened before?

MONTANARO: Well, this potentially could be the longest vacancy in history. The longest one is 391 days since the court went to nine justices. That was in 1969 when Abe Fortas left the Court and they couldn't replace him for an extended period of time. We've had the longest period for a wait, which this potentially could be, also, which was 125 days back in 1916 for Louis D. Brandeis. And with Republicans saying that they're not going to have anyone go through, you could wind up with a couple of records being shattered.

SHAPIRO: If we assume that Scalia's replacement is not going to be confirmed, that Republicans will block whoever President Obama nominates, is there any political wisdom in his choosing a nominee who will galvanize voters that might get upset that their nominee is blocked? For example, I remember when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated - first Latina Supreme Court justice. Republicans were a little reluctant to oppose her because they wanted to win Latino votes.

DAVIS: Yep. President Obama has proven that he likes to use his nominations to put forward women candidates, gay candidates, minority candidates and consider...

SHAPIRO: And these are for lower judgeships in addition to the Supreme Court.

DAVIS: Absolutely - and cabinet secretaries. So I think that, yes, he looks at this as a way to make a statement, particularly if you already have Republicans out...


DAVIS: ...Front, saying they're going to block you.

MONTANARO: And there are a number of people that this president could put forward who have more of a moderate voting record, who have been approved by a large margins for lower court positions that could try to box Republicans in.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro and Susan Davis. Thanks to both of you.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

DAVIS: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
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