WASHINGTON – Sen. Ron Johnson plays a mean game of Twister.
Right hand red! “Let’s let the American people decide and let the next president nominate.”
Left foot blue! “I never said that we shouldn’t vote.”
Left hand yellow! “I would also say that doing nothing is also an action.”
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Right foot green! “By the time I would actually take the vote if it comes to that I’ll take a vote.”
These varying views were all offered in the span of just a few minutes by Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, when the embattled legislator called in to the Jerry Bader radio show Tuesday morning.
His contortions were emblematic of the Republican response to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s immediate declaration that no replacement should be considered “until we have a new president.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who heads the Senate Judiciary committee, took one position Saturday evening, another position two hours later, and a third Tuesday morning – but it’s still unclear where he stands.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, another member of that committee, said he would support a decision not to hold hearings on anybody nominated by President Obama, but also said he doesn’t support a filibuster, which yet another member of the panel, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, has threatened.
And Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said in a radio interview Tuesday that if Republicans block a nominee “sight unseen, we fall into the trap of being obstructionists.”
Obstruction was evidently what Donald Trump, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, had in mind when he advised: “Delay, delay, delay.”
The skittishness among Republican senators is well-grounded: McConnell’s reflexive decision to keep the Supreme Court seat vacant for what would be more than a year requires both logical leaps and political risk.
In blocking the seat from being filled, McConnell and Grassley would be relying on something called the “Thurmond Rule,” named for the late segregationist, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., which has it that no judicial nominees should be confirmed in the final months of a presidency. But eight years ago, Grassley called the Thurmond Rule “bunk” and McConnell said “it’s clear that there is no Thurmond Rule.”
Then there’s the assertion that Obama isn’t representing the people’s wishes because he’s in the final year of his four-year term. So shouldn’t the same apply to senators in the final year of their six-year terms? That would sideline 24 Republican senators (including Grassley) and 10 Democrats.
Of far more consequence: the GOP plan to put the Supreme Court seat to what is essentially a national referendum could have the effect of taking the focus of the election away from where Republicans have an advantage (economic and security fears) and shifting it to where Republicans are at a disadvantage: social issues. Republicans are starting up the culture wars again, but the electorate has shown little appetite for it.
A Pew Research Center poll last month found that the economy and terrorism are by far Americans’ top concerns (75 percent cited each as a top priority). Another Pew poll, in December, found that Republicans have substantial advantages on those top two issues: Americans think the GOP would do a better job than Democrats handling the terrorist threat (46 percent to 34 percent) and the economy (42 percent to 37 percent).
By attempting to make the election about the Supreme Court, Republicans would turn the discussion to topics on which Democrats have large advantages: climate change, business regulations, abortion, same-sex marriage, voting rights and campaign finance. (Polling on immigration and gun control, two other hot-button issues associated with the court, is more mixed.) The refusal to seat a justice would also further the impression, already widely held, that Republicans are more to blame for Washington’s dysfunction.
Obama is already pressing that advantage. “Now, this will be a test, one more test, of whether or not norms, rules, basic fair play can function at all in Washington these days,” he said Tuesday.
And what says Ron Johnson, facing a tough re-election fight?
“I have no idea how the process plays out. I’m not in control of it.”
“Maybe I haven’t quite heard exactly what Leader McConnell or Sen. Grassley has said.”
“Why not let the American people decide by their votes?”
“If this president nominates somebody, we’ll handle it.
“Not handling it is also action.”
Careful, senator. You’re liable to tear a ligament in that position.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.