Obama's sacrificial lamb: High-court pick to face long odds

2016-02-25 09:14
Antonin Scalia. (AP)

Antonin Scalia. (AP)

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Washington - Republicans are refusing to hold a vote or hearings on any candidate for the US Supreme Court nominated by President Barack Obama, complicating his efforts to seek a replacement for deceased conservative Antonin Scalia.

And though Obama insists he'll put forward an "outstanding candidate" no matter what the Republican Party says, the White House is hard-pressed to offer a convincing scenario in which that person gets confirmed.

Overnight, Obama's nominee will become the face of well-financed, high-intensity, election-year campaigns both for and against that will rage across the country. Though guaranteed at least a footnote in the history books, the nominee will have little ability to influence the debate and even less control over the results.

For a Supreme Court hopeful, the scenario is less than ideal. High-ranking judges and others fit for consideration tend to be loath to throw themselves into the middle of public controversy.

But despite the Republicans' hard line, they could relent and confirm Obama's nominee, especially if he picks a so-called consensus nominee someone so well-regarded that Republicans lack a compelling rationale to reject him or her. Among those Obama is considering is Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, said two people familiar with the process, who weren't authorised to comment publicly and requested anonymity

Obama waxed hopeful on Wednesday that Republican opposition would fizzle once the "abstraction" is replaced with a living, breathing person.

"Let's see how the public responds to the nominee that we put forward," he said in the Oval Office.

'A national disgrace'

But unlike most Supreme Court nomination battles, which typically run a few months, this one is likely to turn into a circus that just won't end. If Republicans hold their ground on refusing a vote, Obama will ostensibly keep pushing his nominee until his presidency ends in January 2017.

If a Democrat wins the White House in November after an unsuccessful Supreme Court push, Obama could renew his efforts during a lame-duck session of Congress or his successor could take up the baton. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign wouldn't say whether she'd consider re-nominating Obama's pick if elected, but in a statement she called the Republican position "an offense to the president and to the American people who elected him."

Already, two politicians whose names were floated as possible contenders took themselves out of the running. California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is running for US Senate, said she wasn't interested, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has said she doesn't want to be considered.

Influential groups are poised to jump into action once Obama announces a nominee, digging through old yearbooks, scouring writings and speeches. Party campaign committees, legal groups, electoral super political action committees and even the presidential candidates are expected to join the public fight for or against Obama's nominee.

Senate Republicans, fighting to preserve their delicate majority in November, will all make a similar argument: Elect us, or a Democratic-run Senate will allow Obama's nominee thru, said a senior Republican official, who requested anonymity to discuss the party's internal campaign strategy.

The process can be rough: In 2005, George W Bush nominee Harriet Miers was slammed as ill-prepared, suffered the indignity of having to redo parts of her Senate questionnaire, and forced to admit her bar license was once suspended. She eventually withdrew. Justice Clarence Thomas famously described his own televised confirmation spectacle, with its allegations of past sexual harassment, as "a national disgrace" and "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks".

Dim prospects for confirmation could give an edge to candidates who already enjoy lifetime appointments to a federal bench, as opposed to current bureaucrats or elected officials. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson have both been floated as possibilities, but keeping their day jobs would be complicated.

Current federal judges wouldn't have that problem, and as an added benefit, they've already undergone a thorough public examination. Several of those under considerations, including Sri Srinivasan, of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and Jane Kelly, of the Eight Circuit were unanimously approved by the Senate.

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