Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to block President Barack Obama from replacing Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court devastated Obama’s immigration legacy in June, but it looks even more impressive following Donald Trump’s win in the presidential election Tuesday.
When news broke that Scalia had died unexpectedly Feb. 13, McConnell stunned the White House by almost immediately releasing a statement declaring the Senate would block any Obama nominee to replace him on the bench.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell said in a statement less than an hour after the news of Scalia’s death broke. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”
His quick decision set the tone for Senate Republicans who may have otherwise wavered in their response, and provided cover for the possibility of attacks from Democrats on the motivations for his decision to block a particular nominee.
“It was a real shocker,” a senior White House official later told Politico.
Soon after McConnell’s statement, Obama announced his intention to nominate a replacement. Senate Democrats launched an ongoing effort to pressure Republicans into backing down from McConnell’s decision, arguing the Senate is duty-bound to get a replacement on the bench.
“It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. “Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate’s most essential Constitutional responsibilities.”
Senate Republicans did not budge, and it looks like McConnell’s decision to take the lead rather than feel out his caucus after Scalia’s death played a key role in the outcome of the Supreme Court’s deadlocked decision on Obama’s immigration executive order in June.
Had Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland been sitting on the court, the ruling almost certainly would have been a five to four vote upholding the executive order. Instead, the four to four tie means the lower court’s ruling stands, and he could not move forward with his plan to grant legal status and work permits to millions of illegal immigrants.
That left Obama with no way to come through for the 4 million plus illegal immigrants he wanted to grant amnesty, and puts any chance of comprehensive immigration reform the way he sees it on the outcome of the 2016 election. If former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had won and the Democrats took back the House and Senate, that would have been a real possibility, but Obama’s involvement would have been negligible.
“That [immigration reform] is obviously not going to happen during the remainder of this Congress,” Obama acknowledged in his response. “We don’t have a Congress that agrees with us on this.”
“This is part of the consequence of the Republican failure so far to give a fair hearing to Mr. Merrick Garland, my nominee to the Supreme Court,” he said. “It means that the expanded set of common-sense deferred action policies — the ones that I announced two years ago — can’t go forward at this stage, until there is a ninth justice on the Court to break the tie.”
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told The Daily Caller News Foundation the president was “telling” in his remarks and reiterated the majority leader’s position that Scalia’s replacement should not be decided until after the 2016 election.
“The president was pretty clear in his remarks yesterday that he was disappointed he didn’t get his own justice, because if he had he would have won in that case,” he told TheDCNF. “You’re not supposed to put somebody on there to rule the way you want them to.”
“The leader [McConnell] was clear from the beginning that the next president will be making this nomination after the people have had a chance to speak,” he added.
Rather than confirm a moderate to left-leaning judge appointed by Obama, Senate Republicans will now have the opportunity to confirm at least one justice to the Supreme Court nominated by Trump.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story appeared in June. It has been updated to reflect Donald Trump’s win in the presidential election.
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