DES MOINES – U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley indicated Monday that he will not oppose holding hearings or taking a vote on President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nomination if the proceeding move forward.
“Over the years, and as recently as July, I’ve consistently said that taking up and evaluating a nominee in 2020 would be a decision for the current chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the Senate Majority Leader," he said in a statement provided to the Des Moines Register. "Both have confirmed their intentions to move forward, so that’s what will happen. Once the hearings are underway, it’s my responsibility to evaluate the nominee on the merits, just as I always have."
It's a reversal for Grassley, who in 2016 was the face of Republican efforts to block Democratic President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. He said at the time the Senate should not confirm a nominee in a presidential election year. He has since reiterated that stance, saying in a July 2018 taping of Iowa Press that he would not support confirming a Supreme Court nominee in an election year.
"It was very legitimate that you can't have one rule for Democrat presidents and another rule for Republican presidents," he said at the time.
But Grassley said the circumstances today are different.
"While there was ambiguity about the American people’s will for the direction of the Supreme Court in 2016 under a divided government, there is no such ambiguity in 2020," he said in the statement.
He cited a 2016 letter that senators authored to McConnell in which they wrote:
“Not since 1932 has the Senate confirmed in a presidential election year a Supreme Court nominee to a vacancy arising in that year. And it is necessary to go even further back — to 1888 — in order to find an election year nominee who was nominated and confirmed under divided government, as we have now."
Grassley emphasized "divided government in his statement."
So far, only two Republican senators have come out in opposition to holding hearings before the election: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week after multiple bouts of cancer, setting off a wave of public mourning and launching an immediate political battle over her replacement on the court.
President Donald Trump said Monday he will announce his nomination later this week after memorial services can be held for the late justice. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Trump's nominee "will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate."
Grassley said in July that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican and current head of the Judiciary Committee, will be the one to decide on hearings.
"I would have to tell him that I wouldn't have a hearing," Grassley said. "But if he decides to have a hearing, that's his decision. And then whether or not the nominee would come up on the floor before the election would be (Majority Leader) McConnell's decision, and you would have to ask him what he's going to do in that regard."
Grassley drew Democrats' condemnation in 2016 when, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he blocked confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
That seat became vacant when Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February 2016. Obama made his appointment shortly after, but Grassley led the effort to block Garland's confirmation.
At the time, Grassley said the decision to fill the vacancy should be made by whoever was elected president in November 2016 — nine months after the seat became vacant.
Grassley quickly became the face of Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider a nominee, and his public town halls across the state became heated as some Iowans pushed him to back down and others cheered him on.
Grassley and other prominent Republicans like McConnell said repeatedly and clearly that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court justice in an election year because it would be unfair to voters.
The spot was held open, Trump won the presidency in November and appointed Neil Gorsuch to the seat after he took office. The Senate confirmed Gorsuch to the court in April 2016.
Two years later in June 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was often the court's swing vote, announced he would retire. That set off a confirmation battle over Brett Kavanaugh — proceedings that Grassley again oversaw as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He said at the time that although it was a midterm election year, he was comfortable moving forward with those proceedings because it was not a presidential election year.
Iowa's junior Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is among the Republicans this year saying the Senate should move forward with the confirmation process despite opposing it in 2016.
Ernst told the Des Moines Register's editorial board in a July 2018 interview that a sitting president should not nominate justices to the Supreme Court in an election year. Asked explicitly whether that should hold true for President Trump, Ernst said Trump should wait to be re-elected.
"It’s precedent set," she said. "So come 2020, if there’s an opening, I’m sure you’ll remind me of that."
But more recently, in a July taping of Iowa Press, Ernst said that this year is "different" from past precedent.
"It’s very different than what we have seen in the past," she said. "We have seen … a president of a different party and a Senate of a different party in previous scenarios. But in this scenario, we have the same party that is the majority in the Senate and the same party that is in the White House."
In a statement issued Monday, Ernst said "we have much to consider over the coming days."
“The Supreme Court plays a fundamental role in the defense of our Constitution and in the protection of our rights and liberties," she said. "Once the president puts forward his nominee for the Supreme Court, I will carry out my duty — as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — to evaluate the nominee for our nation’s highest court.”
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Chuck Grassley won't oppose Ruth Bader Ginsburg replacement hearings