Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Saturday signaled there would be no vote on any appointment picked by President Obama to replace deceased Justice Antonin Scalia — setting the stage for a dramatic political showdown in Washington that will likely result in gridlock for the remainder of the year.
McConnell said a new appointment should wait until a new president takes office.
"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president," McConnell said in a statement.
McConnell's statement indicates he is not planning on bringing to the floor for a vote any nominee Obama selects to succeed Obama, according to a Senate GOP aide.
Democrats have already made it clear that they intend to push aggressively for a new justice to be appointed.
"The president can and should send the Senate a nominee right away," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said on Twitter. "The Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible."
Obama, speaking Saturday night, said: "I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibility to nominate a successor in due time. There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote."
With his previous two appointments, Obama was replacing liberal justices with younger liberals. But with Scalia, he would have the chance to replace the justice who has held the fort down for conservatives on the court for the past 30 years, potentially moving the court dramatically to the left. That's why analysts say McConnell would be in politically treacherous territory if he put an Obama nominee to the high court on the Senate floor for a vote.
"It is highly unlikely that McConnell would ever bring up a nominee unless his conference were solidly behind him," Ron Bonjean, a GOP consultant and former top Senate Republican aide, told the Washington Examiner.
The typically deliberative McConnell was unusually quick Saturday night in firing off a statement in the hours after Scalia's death. The statement sent a strong and immediate message to the GOP base that he would not be taking up the nomination of a justice who would shift the high court into liberal territory.
But if McConnell declines to put Obama's nomination on the floor for a vote, it likely would create gridlock for the remainder of the legislative year because angry Democrats would block the passage of other bills.
"Democrats will most likely try to shut everything down in protest," Bonjean said.
Democratic filibusters would interfere with McConnell's goal of passing bipartisan bills that demonstrate to voters that a GOP majority in Congress can get things done.
"I hope that no one will use this sad news to suggest that the president or the Senate should not perform its constitutional duty," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committe said Saturday. "The American people deserve to have a full functioning Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons. It is only February. The president and the Senate should get to work without delay to nominate, consider and confirm the next justice to serve on the Supreme Court."
Given the stakes, McConnell has little choice politically but to stop Obama's nominee.
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Minority Leader Harry Reid, said locking up the Senate floor is "a very viable option" for Democrats to protest McConnell's move to block an Obama nominee.
But he condemned McConnell's threat to postpone a vote on a new Supreme Court justice until next year.
"I assume that Senator McConnell has the support of most if not all of his caucus, but it remains to be seen whether the American people are going to let him get away with this outrageous abuse of power," Manley said.
McConnell celebrated Scalia's legacy in his statement: "Today our country lost an unwavering champion of a timeless document that unites each of us as Americans. Justice Scalia's fidelity to the Constitution was rivaled only by the love of his family: his wife Maureen his nine children, and his many grandchildren. Through the sheer force of his intellect and his legendary wit, this giant of American jurisprudence almost single-handedly revived an approach to constitutional interpretation that prioritized the text and original meaning of the Constitution. Elaine and I send our deepest condolences to the entire Scalia family."