Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who waged a Republican blockade of the last US Supreme Court nominee under a Democratic president, issued a warning to Joe Biden as he prepares to nominate a replacement for retiring Justice Stephen Breyer.
The Republican senator from Kentucky, who worked closely with former president Donald Trump’s administration to radically reshape the federal judiciary, said President Biden “must not outsource this important decision to the radical left”.
“The American people elected a Senate that is evenly split at 50-50,” he said in a statement on 27 January. “To the degree that President Biden received a mandate, it was to govern from the middle, steward our institutions, and unite America. … The American people deserve a nominee with demonstrated reverence for the written text of our laws and our Constitution.”
The previous administration made more than 200 judicial appointments, including three Supreme Court nominees, all with lifetime tenures.
Following the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, then-President Barack Obama named Merrick Garland – now US Attorney General under Mr Biden – as his replacement. Senator McConnell refused to hold confirmation hearings and argued that the next justice should be decided by the next president, a move he later would call one of his “proudest moments”.
After a 263-day vacancy on the high court, the seat eventually was filled by Mr Trump’s nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
“The most important decision I made in my entire political career was not to fill a Supreme Court vacancy” following the death of Scalia, Mr McConnell said on Fox News in 2019.
In 2020, just days before that year’s presidential election, the GOP-led Senate confirmed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, despite objections from congressional Democrats and allegations of Republican hypocrisy for violating the rules that allowed them to block Mr Garland’s hearings.
But it is because of the senator, however, that Democrats need only a simple majority vote in the evenly divided upper chamber to confirm the president’s nominee to replace Breyer, after Senator McConnell lowered the threshold from a two-thirds supermajority vote.
It remains unclear how an equally divided Senate under President Biden will progress with confirmation hearings and debate over nominees – or whether Senator McConnell could derail the process – during a volatile midterm election campaign with the balance of power on Congress at stake.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate will have a “fair process that moves quickly” once the president appoints a nominee, expected by the end of February.
Senator McConnell praised Justice Breyer for his commitment “to the importance of a nonpartisan, non-politicised judiciary.”
“Justice Breyer commands respect and affection across the legal world, including from those who disagree with his judicial philosophy and conclusions in cases,” he added. “This respect is rooted in Justice Breyer’s intelligence, rigor, and good-faith scholarly engagement. By all accounts, both personally and professionally, he has rendered exemplary service on our nation’s highest Court.”