By LISA MASCARO, ZEKE MILLER and MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans have swiftly fallen in line behind President Donald Trump’s rush to fill the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, all but ensuring a divisive confirmation vote despite Democrats’ objections it’s too close to the Nov. 3 election.
Trump, who will announce his nominee Saturday, says he’s confident his choice will be confirmed.
“I guess we have all the votes we’re going to need,” Trump told WJBX FOX 2 in Detroit on Tuesday, “I think it’s going to happen.”
Trump and conservatives are insisting on a vote before Election Day, and Republicans control the Senate, 53-47, with a simple majority needed for confirmation. The one remaining possible Republican holdout, Mitt Romney of Utah, said Tuesday he supports taking a vote.
Still, with early voting for president already underway in several states, all sides are girding for a wrenching Senate battle sure to further split a torn nation.
Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have launched one of the quickest confirmation efforts in modern times. No court nominee in U.S. history has been considered so close to a presidential election. And it all comes as the nation is marking the grave milestone of 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.
During a private lunch meeting Tuesday at Senate GOP campaign headquarters, several Republican senators spoke up in favor of voting before the election. None advocated a delay.
McConnell made no scheduling announcements but said once Trump announces his choice, the Senate Judiciary Committee will outline a plan. “We all anticipate it’s going to be an extremely well-qualified woman,” McConnell said.
Democrats, led by presidential nominee Joe Biden, vow a tough fight but need four GOP defections to block consideration. So far, two Republicans have said they oppose taking up a nomination at this time, but no others are in sight. Under Senate rules, Vice President Mike Pence can break a tie vote.
As tributes poured in for Ginsburg with vigils and flowers at the court’s steps, the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said that “we should honor her dying wish,” which was that her seat not be filled until the man who wins the presidential lection is installed, in January. But that seemed no longer an option.
Confirmation hearings could start in early October. Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, who faces his own tough re-election in South Carolina, said he’s confident his panel has time to consider Trump’s pick and send it to full Senate “before Election Day.”
Trump met with conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett at the White House on Monday and told reporters he would interview other candidates and might meet with Judge Barbara Lagoa when he travels to Florida later this week. Conversations in the White House and McConnell’s office have been increasingly focused on Barrett and Lagoa, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.
Barrett, 48, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, has long been favored by conservatives. Those familiar with the process said interest inside the White House seemed to be waning for Lagoa amid concerns she did not have a proven record as a conservative jurist. Lagoa has been pushed by some aides who tout her political advantages of being Hispanic and hailing from the key political battleground state of Florida.
Democrats point to hypocrisy in Republicans trying to rush through a pick so close to the election after McConnell led the GOP in refusing to vote on a nominee of President Barack Obama in February 2016, long before that year’s election.
Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, dismissed that argument, saying “it was not unfair” for Republicans to refuse to consider Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland.
The Utah Republican backed up his decision by saying it’s not “written in the stars” that the court should have a liberal bent. He said Trump’s pick will tip the court to become more conservative, and he said that is appropriate “for a nation which is, if you will, center right, to have a court which reflects a center right point of view.”
At the private lunch, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said, senators advocating swift voting warned of “too many complications” if the process is delayed until after the election — presumably if Biden wins the White House or Republicans lose the Senate.
Conservative groups also argue the election result could be disputed with legal battles dragging on for weeks.
Democrats say voters should speak first, on Election Day, and the winner of the White House should fill the vacancy. Biden appealed to GOP senators to “uphold your constitutional duty, your conscience” and wait until after the election.
But few Republicans are willing to cross Trump. The president has criticized Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska for opposing a vote before elections. Trump warned they would be “very badly hurt” by voters.
Republicans anticipate an election-year boost from the debate over abortion, healthcare and other issues before the court. “These sorts of fights bring Republicans together,” said Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., the campaign chairman. “I anticipate that will happen in 2020.”
At a memorial on the National Mall marking the 200,000 COVID deaths, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid tribute to Ginsburg and warned against Trump’s coming court challenge to the Affordable Care Act. “It’s a time for us to vote health,” she said.
The mounting clash over the vacant seat injects new turbulence in the presidential campaign with the nation still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and shattered economy, with millions unemployed and heightened partisan tensions and anger.
Ginsburg, 87, died Friday of metastatic pancreatic cancer. She will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol this week, the first woman accorded that honor. Her casket will be on view Wednesday and Thursday on the steps of the high court.
No nominee has won confirmation so quickly since Sandra Day O’Connor — with no opposition from either party — became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court in 1981.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman, Andrew Taylor, Matthew Daly, Kevin Freking and Mike Balsamo in Washington, Alex Jaffe in Philadelphia, Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Steve Peoples and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.