Imagine if Senate Republicans meant what they said when they come up with rationales to explain their unprecedented obstruction of the regular process for filling Supreme Court vacancies. We’d see a news story like this:
The partisan fight over replacing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia took a dramatic and unexpected turn today when Republican Chairman Chuck Grassley stepped down as chairman and turned control of the committee to the Democrats.
Grassley told surprised reporters that he was acting in order to be consistent with the standard he and his fellow Republicans have been using as a rationale to deny President Obama the right to nominate the next justice, or to hold a hearing for any such nominee.
When today’s conversation with reporters began, no one expected any surprises. Grassley has been unable to explain when or how the constitutional provision that the president serves a four-year term was changed to three years. Nor has he even tried to explain how the American people’s overwhelming reelection of Barack Obama was, in reality, a call for him not to exercise the powers of his office. No one expected him to come up with reasonable responses to these criticisms. The surprise came when a reporter asked Grassley if he was putting party politics over the interests of his constituents:
“My constituents? My only constituent is my party leader, Mitch McConnell, here in Washington. I actually have no constituents in Iowa. None. Zero. When they reelected me to a six-year term in 2010, I fully understood that I would not be able or expected to exercise the prerogatives of my office during the sixth year. I am running for reelection this November, and the people of Iowa deserve a voice in how their senator will react to a potential Supreme Court nomination, or, in fact, to any federal judicial nomination coming from the White House. Remaining as chairman of this committee would deny Iowans their voice.
“So I am stepping down as chairman, and while I will attend hearings and business meetings, I will cast no votes.”
Grassley mentioned two fellow Republican committee members, Mike Lee of Utah (who is in the sixth year of his six-year term and is running for reelection) and David Vitter of Louisiana (who chose not to run for reelection this year), saying he fully expects them to follow his principled position and refrain from casting votes in committee.
Thus, while the partisan breakdown of the Senate Judiciary Committee remains 11-9 in the Republicans’ favor, Democrats now hold a 9-8 advantage on any matter involving committee votes, including the selection of a new chairman. Senate Democrats have not subscribed to the GOP view that a political party can unilaterally amend the Constitution to shorten officials’ terms or trim those officials’ constitutional powers and responsibilities. So Democratic committee members up for reelection this year intend to serve their entire six-year terms, as the Constitution spells out and as voters in their states expected when electing them in 2010.
It is currently unclear whether other Senate Republicans will similarly abdicate their right to vote in committee and on the floor in order to exercise the principle they are demanding in the context of filling the current Supreme Court vacancy.