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Little hope of Supreme Court nominee vote, survey finds

Shawn Zeller Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – Neither Republican nor Democratic staffers who responded to CQ Roll Call’s Capitol Insiders Survey in February expect the Senate to confirm a replacement for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court this year.

That’ll be a win for the GOP if a Republican is elected president in November. But the Democratic staffers also said, overwhelmingly, that because of the flap it’s less likely that a Republican will ascend to the Oval Office.

Plenty of Republicans are worried about the political consequences too. Thirty-seven percent of the Republican respondents said they thought the issue would play to Democrats’ advantage in the election, nearly as many as thought it would work to their own, 41 percent.

By contrast, nine of 10 Democrats who responded said they thought the issue would benefit them on Election Day. Only two Democrats – out of the 105 who answered the question – said it would help the GOP.

“I think Republicans are playing with dynamite,” former Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who’s now with the law and lobbying firm Venable, said in an interview.

CQ Roll Call sent an email survey to nearly 7,000 staffers and 251 responded. The survey was open from Feb. 16-22.

Few believe the conflict can be averted, no matter whom President Barack Obama nominates.

Nine in 10 Republicans said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would prove true to his word and block Obama’s nominee, whomever it is. A plurality of Democratic respondents, more than four in 10, agreed.

Still, Pryor said the political ramifications do depend on whom Obama nominates. On that, the aides are divided.

By a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, Democrats say Obama will seek a compromise candidate, perhaps someone the Senate has previously confirmed to a judgeship with bipartisan support. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans, on the other hand, expect a liberal ideologue aimed at firing up the Democratic base.

“Politically, it would be foolish if he chose someone Republicans wanted,” says Sam Geduldig, a former aide to GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio who’s now a partner at the CGCN Group lobbying firm.

If the aides are right that the politics of the court appointment benefit Democrats, the issue could affect not only the presidential campaign but tight congressional races as well. And imperiled Republicans senators are, apparently, willing to make the case for their intransigence.

Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, for example, have all backed McConnell. Among the most vulnerable, only the most imperiled of all, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, has taken a more nuanced position. He says that the Senate should at least hold hearings and vote on Obama’s nominee.

The vacancy will also help liberals whose cases are pending before the court, according to the aides. On that issue, staffers from both parties agree. Fifty-four percent of Republican aides and 60 percent of Democratic respondents said the court was now more likely to rule the way Obama wants it to on the cases it’s hearing this year.

There are a plethora of cases important to the administration before the court, including a challenge to the mandate in Obama’s health care law that health insurers cover contraception, a case on university affirmative action, and another challenging the way labor unions collect dues. In each case, Scalia’s absence shifts the odds in favor of the liberal side, because it would deadlock the court 4-4 and allow a lower court ruling to stand.

At the same time, despite how nasty the fight over Scalia’s seat has become, respondents to CQ Roll Call’s survey don’t expect it to hamper Congress’ ability to enact spending bills this year.

Given how broken the appropriations process is, it’s notable that nearly half of the Democratic respondents and nearly two-thirds of the Republicans think that Congress this year will enact at least some of the 12 annual spending bills that have, in recent years, been rolled into year-end catch-alls. Thirty-nine percent of the Democrats and 25 percent of the Republicans think that no individual bills will be passed. That would leave open several possibilities – an omnibus spending bill or a stopgap bill could be enacted, or the government could shut down.

Asked about the possibility that Democrats could hold up appropriations bills, threatening a government shutdown, to protest if Republicans don’t consider Obama’s nominee, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran wasn’t buying it. “I just think it’s political rhetoric, that’s it,” the Mississippi Republican said in an interview.

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