S.C. Congressional GOP cool to confirming Scalia successor on Obama’s watch

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

WASHINGTON -- South Carolina’s two Republican U.S. Senators said Saturday night they weren’t inclined to help President Barack Obama confirm a Supreme Court Justice to succeed Antonin Scalia.

Just hours after the news was announced of Justice Scalia’s death, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott were joining Senate GOP leaders in suggesting a successor shouldn’t be installed until after Obama leaves the White House.

Graham, a member of the Judiciary Committee, stopped short of saying he would automatically oppose an Obama nominee. But he made it clear there was a high bar to earn his support.

“This is what happens when you abuse power,” Graham said of Obama, who Republicans accuse of frequently flouting Congress to pursue his own agenda.

“I will not confirm anyone on Obama’s watch unless it’s an overwhelming consensus choice,” Graham said on Fox News Saturday. “I don’t want Elizabeth Warren picking the Democratic judges and, quite frankly, I don’t want Ted Cruz picking the Republican judges.”

Warren is a liberal Democratic U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, and Cruz, a conservative U.S. Senator from Texas, is a candidate for president.

Graham held court with the media shortly before the Republican presidential debate in Greenville, where he is attending as a supporter of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Scott, meanwhile, suggested he favored waiting to confirm Scalia’s Supreme Court seat pick until after Obama’s own successor is sworn into office in 2017.

“The next president has a responsibility to nominate a justice that will continue defending the principles that make our nation great,” Scott said in a statement.

Of course, the risk of waiting until 2017 is the next president could end up being a Democrat. That would mean Republicans might end up never getting the Supreme Court justice they would like to see replace Scalia, who was perhaps the most reliably conservative vote on the bench.

The Republicans’ hold on the majority in the Senate is also exceedingly thin. By insisting on waiting until the next Congress to confirm a Supreme Court justice, Republicans are banking on keeping that majority. The balance of power, of course, could ultimately shift to Democrats are a result of the November elections.

But Graham told reporters he would vote for a “qualified” Supreme Court justice nominated by a potential President Hillary Clinton, regardless of his or her political leanings. He added, however, that he would take a hardline position in the current Congress as “payback” for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., changing the vote threshold to approve judicial nominees from 60 to 50 back when he led the Democratic majority.

“I told the president and the Democratic leadership that if you abuse power and change the rules for appellate judges and executive appointments, going to a majority, you’ll pay a price with me,” Graham said. “So here’s the price. I’m not going to vote for a Barack Obama nominee unless he’s a consensus choice. He’s not going to put on the court a liberal who’s well qualified.”

As it happens, how this debate plays out on Capitol Hill might be influenced by another South Carolinian. Late-U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., in 1968, argued judicial nominees should not be confirmed in the months leading up to a presidential election to justify his hold on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nominee for Supreme Court Chief Justice Abe Fortas. It’s known as the “Thurmond Rule,” though it’s not official or binding.

Obama delivered a televised statement Saturday night, shortly before the start of the presidential debate, where he said he expected the Senate to hold a “timely” vote on his eventual nominee.

Clinton, in a statement on Scalia’s passing, said, “I did not hold Justice Scalia’s views, but he was a dedicated public servant who brought energy and passion to the bench.”

She continued, “the Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor our Constitution. The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons.”

Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination for president, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, issued a similar statement.

“While I differed with Justice Scalia’s views and jurisprudence, he was a brilliant, colorful, and outspoken member of the Supreme Court,” Sanders said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family and his colleagues who mourn his passing.”

Emma Dumain is the Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.