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.
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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.
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."
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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."
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