The Republican head of the Senate panel that weighs U.S. Supreme Court nominations said on Tuesday he will wait until President Barack Obama names his pick to fill the vacancy left by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia's death before deciding whether to hold confirmation hearings.
"I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions" about confirmation hearings, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said, according to Radio Iowa. "In other words, take it a step at a time."
Grassley has offered mixed messages since Scalia's death on how the Senate should proceed on the vacancy, alternating hardline views on blocking any nominee with comments not ruling out hearings.
Republicans have threatened not to act on any nominee put forward by the Democratic president for the Supreme Court seat. Obama's nominee could alter the court's balance of power. Before Scalia's death, it had five conservatives and four liberals.
Republicans control the Senate, which the U.S. Constitution assigns responsibility for confirming a president's nomination to the court. Republicans have opposed nearly all of Obama's major initiatives during the first seven years of his presidency, and filling the court vacancy is shaping up as a monumental election-year fight.
Grassley initially told the Des Moines Register newspaper shortly after word of Scalia's death on Saturday he would not "make any prognostication" about how the committee or the full Senate would handle a nomination to fill the vacancy. Later on Saturday, he put out a statement saying the Senate should not take up the nomination until after the election.
Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee's top Democrat, prodded Republicans to act on whomever Obama nominates for a lifetime appointment to the court.
"The advice and consent role enshrined in our Constitution was not designed to allow a blanket prohibition of any potential nominee, but that is exactly where the Republican majority leader is trying to take us," Leahy wrote in an opinion piece in USA Today, referring to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
McConnell said on Saturday the vacancy should not be filled until Obama's successor takes office in January so voters can have a say on the selection when they cast ballots in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
Obama was expected to face questions on the Supreme Court later on Tuesday during a news conference in Rancho Mirage, California at the close of a two-day meeting with leaders from Southeast Asia.
While the House plays no role in confirming Supreme Court nominees, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan supported the idea of blocking any nominee offered by Obama.
"The president has absolutely every right to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, but Congress as an equal branch also has every right not to confirm someone," Ryan said in interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that if Senate Republicans block consideration of any Obama nominee, "they will ensure that this Republican majority is remembered as the most nakedly partisan, obstructionist and irresponsible majority in history."
Ed Pagano, who served in Obama's White House as liaison to the Senate from 2012 to 2014, said to put pressure on Senate Republicans Democrats could refuse to give their consent on must-pass spending bills until the nominee is considered.
"If the minority (Democrats) really wants to gum stuff up, they can," Pagano told Reuters.
Pagano said the ideal candidate for the nomination would be either a woman or a minority, recently vetted by Congress and viewed as a moderate.
For those reasons, Pagano said Sri Srinivasan, who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since he was confirmed on a 97-0 bipartisan vote in the U.S. Senate in 2013, would be the most logical fit. He would be the first Indian-American on the high court.
"Somebody like that could put a little political pressure on Republicans. Whether that will be enough for McConnell to relent, I don't know," Pagano said.
Scalia, 79, was found dead on Saturday at a Texas hunting resort.
A court spokeswoman said Scalia's body will lie in repose at the Supreme Court building on Friday. Funeral arrangements have not been announced, but National Public Radio reported that his funeral will be on Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Scalia's chair in the court's ornate chamber has been draped with black wool crepe in accordance with court tradition following a justice's death.
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