McConnell claimed in 2016 that Garland’s nomination by President Barack Obama, following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, should not be brought to a vote because “the American people should have a say in the Court’s direction.” In February of that year, he released a statement vowing to keep the seat open so that the next president would be able to fill it.
Democrats outraged after McConnell vows to fill any Supreme Court vacancy in 2020
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” he said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”
Oh, wed fill it: How McConnell is doing a 180 on Supreme Court vacancies in an election year
In a halfhearted attempt to justify this nakedly partisan gambit, McConnell misleadingly cited a decades-old demand from then-Senate Judiciary Chair Joe Biden (D-DE) that any hypothetical nominees in the final year of President George H.W. Bush’s presidency must be mainstream moderates. Despite Obama’s nomination of a moderate who had previously received strong bipartisan praise, McConnell did not even allow Garland a committee hearing. The seat remained open for nearly a year until Trump filled it with conservative Neil Gorsuch.
Video: What Senate Republicans said about Merrick Garlands nomination
Having gone through it, McConnell and the overwhelming majority of the Republican caucus’ refrain was: let the people have a voice,” recalled Jesse Lee, vice president of communications at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. During the fight over Garland’s nomination, Lee served as the White House director of rapid response and special assistant to President Obama. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed within the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
“Not ‘let them have a voice because technically we control the Senate and the opposition controls the presidency.’ It was: ‘Its the final year of the presidency, the American people should have a voice, so let them have a say.’ It was simple as that,” Lee continued.
McConnell has often since bragged about the maneuver — one he has called one of his “proudest moments.” On Tuesday, McConnell was asked whether he would give the American people the same deference should a Supreme Court vacancy occur next year, in the final year of Trump’s term as president. “Oh, we’d fill it,” he smilingly replied.
David Popp, McConnell’s communications director, tweeted on Wednesday that there was a key reason why Obama should not have gotten to fill the seat and Trump should get to fill one: party.
“The decision not to consider Garland’s nomination was because the Senate was held by a different party than the president leading into an election,” Popp said. “His answer Tuesday is consistent with that claim.”
Lee says this argument holds no water. “The fact that you can find a few of his thousands of quotes on this that referenced the opposition party holding the Senate has almost no merit. That was not his calling card, that was not his stance.”
“I think it was a joke then because obviously President Obama was elected to a second term pretty overwhelmingly — he won the popular vote unlike some presidents I know — and he had a very high approval rating. Youve got President Trump, whose approval rating is dismal, who people do not trust on any issue across the board, and is facing some pretty serious questions about his own legitimacy in terms of Mueller report,” Lee added. “Its not just that McConnells being inconsistent. Circumstances are much worse here, in terms of what he did to Merrick Garland.”
Popp and McConnell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for clarification as to why the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justices only when the president’s party is in the minority in the Senate.
Judicial Crisis Network policy director Carrie Severino breaks down the decisions on hot-button issues.
Democrats are livid after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., stated that Republicans would confirm a new Supreme Court justice in 2020 if given the chance, despite refusing to do so when Barack Obama was president during the last presidential election.
McConnell made the comments during a speech in his home state Tuesday afternoon. Asked what Republicans would do if there was a vacancy on the court in 2020, he replied, "Uh, we'd fill it." In 2016, McConnell and his fellow Republicans chose not to vote on Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, claiming that the next president should get to make that decision.
As a result, President Trump later successfully nominated the conservative Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Garland is widely considered more centrist.
Democratic presidential candidates quickly took the opportunity to accuse McConnell of hypocrisy.
"We've known all along how hypocritical the @senatemajldr is," said Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro. "But his shamlessness at stealing a Supreme Court seat is appalling."
Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee also chimed in, claiming McConnell's remark was evidence that he "is not a man on the verge of an epiphany to work with Democrats."
Other high-profile Democrats took shots at McConnell as well. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called him a "hypocrite" in a Twitter thread, and said, "Anyone who believes he’d ever allow confirmation of a Dem President's nominee for SCOTUS is fooling themselves."
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said McConnell had admitted that the GOP "stole a Supreme Court seat from President Obama" when they reffused to hold a hearing for Garland.
But McConnell's communications director pushed back agains the criticism, explaining why McConnell's position is different now than it was in 2016. He argued that while in 2020 the White House and Senate will be controlled by the same party, that was not the case during President Obama's last year in office.
Democrats lamented the GOP's decision to stall in 2016, which ended up giving President Trump the ability to place two conservative justices on the Supreme Court during his first term in office. Conservative justices now have a 5-4 majority over liberals, at a time when Democrats are worried that a string of restrictive abortion laws could result in the overruling of Roe v. Wade.
As recent weeks have shown, however, justices can be unpredictable, with each of Trump's picks — Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — siding with their liberal colleagues in close decisions.