Republicans, Democrats prep for clash over Supreme Court nominee

As President Donald Trump gets closer to nominating a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the sabre-rattling between Senate Democrats and Republicans over the Supreme Court has taken on a sharper edge.

Over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., traded verbal blows over the vacancy. McConnell said he was "confident" Trump would get his pick confirmed, but Schumer repeated his pledge to fight "tooth and nail" any nominee his party considered out of the judicial mainstream.

Related: Trump's potential Supreme Court nominee

Trump potential Supreme Court justices
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Trump potential Supreme Court justices

Judge Thomas Lee

Image courtesy of Utah Courts 

Judge Federico Moreno

Image Courtesy of  University of Miami school of Law 

UNDATED PHOTO - This undated photo, courtesy of the Alabama Attorney General's office, shows Alabama Attorney General William H. Pryor Jr. Amidst overwhelming controversy, the Senate Judiciary Committee July 30, 2003 approved, 10-9, Pryor's nomination to be a judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The nomination would grant him a lifetime seat on the Court of Appeals. (Photo by Alabama Attorney General's Office/Getty Images)

Judge Amul Thapar

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt University 

Judge David Stras

Image courtesy of th Minnesota Judicial Branch

Judge Don Willett

Image courtesy of Texas Civil Justice League 

Judge Robert Young

Image courtesy of the Michigan Courts 

Allison Eid of Colorado

(Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Diane Sykes of Wisconsin

(Photo by George Bridges/MCT/MCT via Getty Images)

Steven Colloton of Iowa

(Photo via US Government)

Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania

(Photo via Roy Engelbrecht/Wikipedia)

Raymond Kethledge of Michigan

(Photo via By SPDuffy527 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

 Senator Mike Lee of Utah

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Judge Neil Gorsuch (far Right)

(Photo by David Scull/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Judge Margaret A Ryan 

Image Courtesy of Birmingham Southern College

Edward Mansfield of Iowa

Image Courtesy of The American Law Institute

Keith Blackwell of Georgia

Image Courtesy of Georgia Supreme Court 

Timothy Tymkovich of Colorado

Image Courtesy of the Supreme Court of Colorado 

House Manager Charles Canady on Capitol Hill January 25.
Justice Joan Larsen of the Michigan Supreme Court and a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at his memorial service at the Mayflower Hotel March 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. Justice Scalia died February 13 while on a hunting trip in Texas. (Photo by Susan Walsh-Pool/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Trump, who has promised to make a nomination for the high court within two weeks of taking office, may have tipped his hand: The president on Jan. 14 quietly met with Judge William Pryor, the conservative federal judge many say is at the top of his short list.

Pryor, a former Alabama Attorney General, met with Trump in New York, according to The Associated Press, citing two sources familiar with the meeting. Days later, at a pre-inaugural luncheon with Republicans, Trump hinted he was close to making a decision.

The clashes between Schumer and McConnell, and Trump's meeting with Pryor, have sharpened the focus on the high court, particularly as Trump settles into the White House.

When former President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a highly-regarded federal judge, to replace Scalia in March 2016, Republicans balked: Despite his centrist credentials, confirming Garland would have broken the court's decades-long, 5-4 conservative majority and shifted the court to the left. Instead, the GOP-majority Senate refused to act on Garland's nomination until after the November election.

SEE ALSO: Conservatives press Trump on Bill Pryor as Supreme Court nominee

During the campaign, Trump said he wanted to fill the vacancy with an ideological twin of Scalia's, returning the court to full strength and re-establish the conservative majority. He said he'd pick a nominee from a list of 21 jurists compiled in part by the Heritage Foundation along with other conservative legal scholars; Pryor was usually at the top of such lists.

At the same time, experts predict the new president could have at least one and perhaps as many as three vacancies to fill during his first term -- an opportunity to anchor the court on the right with a nearly implacable 6-3 majority.

Influential conservatives -- including Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican and Trump's choice for attorney general -- are pushing Trump to pick Pryor, who sits on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

But it's likely Democrats would push back, given Pryor's views on abortion. He once called the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion the "worst abomination in the history of constitutional law."

Related: Supreme Court Justices

Supreme Court Justices
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Supreme Court Justices

John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts is followed by Elena Kagan on her way to take the Judicial Oath to become the 112th US Supreme Court justice, in Washington on August 7, 2010. (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," McConnell said he expects Trump to name "an outstanding nominee sometime soon." He would not say, however, if he would use his power as leader of the GOP majority to keep Democrats from using the filibuster -- the only tool at their disposal to block a nominee they believe is objectionable.

When pressed, McConnell would only say he's "confident we'll get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed," and noted that when Democrats were in the majority, Republicans didn't stop the nominees of Obama or former President Bill Clinton from ascending to the high court during their first terms.

"I think it's noteworthy to look at how the Republican minority handled Bill Clinton the first, in his first administration. Both of his first two nominees, Ginsburg and Breyer, no filibuster," McConnell said. "Obama, in his first term... no filibuster. We think our nominee ought to be treated the same way."

Schumer, however, fired back on CNN's "State of the Union," pledging to take the same approach McConnell took to block Garland.

"If the nominee is not bipartisan and mainstream, we absolutely will keep the seat open," Schumer said. "I'm hopeful that maybe President Trump will nominate someone that will get bipartisan support — but, yes, we'll fight it tooth-and-nail as long as we have to."

After meeting with Pryor, Trump told a pre-inaugural gathering of GOP leadership Thursday that he had settled on a nominee and would make his announcement soon.

"I think in my mind I know who it is," he said at the luncheon in his downtown Washington hotel, according to cell phone video CNN obtained of the event. "I think you're going to be very, very excited."

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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