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Dave Helling: Scalia replacement fight suggests truth still more exciting than fiction

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have made an unforced error in his quick statement that the Senate wouldn’t consider any replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia until after the presidential election, Dave Helling writes.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have made an unforced error in his quick statement that the Senate wouldn’t consider any replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia until after the presidential election, Dave Helling writes. AP file photo

One of my favorite political novels is Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent.” It’s a Cold War tale of Washington intrigue, built around the nomination of a secretary of state. The Senate’s consideration of the pick leads to arguments, scandal and — well, no spoilers here. It’s a pretty good read, even today.

There’s a reason the novel’s plot involves a nomination fight. Budget disputes can be compromised. Treaties can be rewritten. Important stuff, but boring.

When a president submits a name for a government position, on the other hand, the Senate must decide yes or no. Now that’s entertainment.

That’s why the battle over finding a new Supreme Court justice will be fascinating and likely to go on for some time.

Let’s agree on this: While the president has the right to name a replacement for Antonin Scalia, the Senate is well within its rights to refuse to consider the pick. The Constitution sets no time limits on how long it can take to offer advice or give consent.

Having said that, Sen. Mitch McConnell’s tactical approach may have been an unforced error. Within hours of Scalia’s death, McConnell told President Barack Obama the Senate wouldn’t consider any replacement until after the presidential election.

The quick announcement may make sense as policy. As politics, though, it now frees Obama to pick a nominee whose failure could cause partisan damage in November. An immigrant with an inspiring family story, maybe. A well-known woman. A minority.

See, Obama and the Democrats will remind voters, Republicans won’t even give these qualified candidates a job interview, let alone a job.

McConnell could have blunted the attack by agreeing to hearings. The seat would still stay open, but there would be less potential damage in November.

There’s another possibility. If McConnell had adopted a wait-and-see approach, Obama might have nominated a moderate judge. At that point, the GOP might have offered a deal: a moderately liberal justice in exchange for something we want, like keeping Guantanamo open.

Sure, Obama might have rejected that agreement. Republicans could then turn down his nominee and they’d be no worse off than they are today. If he took the deal, the GOP would have traded a moderately liberal judge for an important policy goal of its choice and a non-issue in November.

Perhaps you wouldn’t make that trade. Perhaps, like many Republicans, you’re willing to gamble on winning the White House in the fall and confirming another Scalia next year.

But it isn’t clear whether the party will have enough Senate votes to appoint a starkly conservative judge even if they capture the presidency. Democrats will fight just as fiercely as the GOP is fighting now, after all.

And if a Democrat wins the White House, he or she can nominate a full-throated liberal. At that point, Republicans would be in the awkward position of either agreeing to the pick or blocking it — after delaying the choice for a year and after making the election a referendum on the court. Not a good place to be.

In politics, as in life, the best strategy is to keep one’s options open as long as possible. McConnell’s quick announcement seems OK on the merits, but may have foreclosed some choices, to his party’s detriment.

Sounds like the plot for a pretty good novel.

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