McCon­nell’s big vic­tory

Ma­jor­ity leader’s strat­egy led to GOP se­cur­ing Supreme Court.

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - @pkcapi­tol PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

As Judge Neil Gor­such has made his way this month through the gant­let re­quired of a Supreme Court nom­i­nee, tour­ing Capi­tol Hill and meet­ing with the law­mak­ers who will de­cide his fate, Pres­i­dent Trump has boasted flam­boy­antly about his choice.

But on that late-Jan­uary evening when Trump in­tro­duced Gor­such to an ap­prov­ing au­di­ence at the White House, some­one else in the el­e­gant East Room was also beam­ing with pride: Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.).

Tech­ni­cally, this was Trump’s se­lec­tion, but for many crit­ics and fans, the va­cancy will be re­mem­bered as the McCon­nell seat.

Al­most ex­actly one year ago, Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia died on a hunt­ing trip in a re­mote corner of Texas. With­out con­sult­ing his col­leagues, McCon­nell de­clared that no Supreme Court nom­i­nee from then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama would ever be con­sid­ered. He stuck to his word: By the fall, Se­nate Repub­li­cans who had joined McCon­nell in stonewalling Obama’s nom­i­nee, Judge Mer­rick Gar­land, were beg­ging vot­ers to side with them to pro­vide a check against Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton’s choice for the Scalia va­cancy — and to con­sider vot­ing for Trump, who most of them thought was headed to de­feat.

As we all now know, Trump pulled off the up­set. And ac­cord­ing to bi­par­ti­san analy­ses, his vic­tory was driven in part by doubt­ful Repub­li­cans who came home to an unconventional can­di­date with shaky con­ser­va­tive cre­den­tials be­cause they be­lieved he would ap­point re­li­able jus­tices to the Supreme Court.

De­pend­ing on one’s po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tive, McCon­nell pulled off one of the most suc­cess­ful strate­gic ma­neu­vers of modern politics — help­ing hold the Se­nate ma­jor­ity, aid­ing a Repub­li­can takeover of the White House and keep­ing a con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity on the Supreme Court — or he is re­spon­si­ble for one of the most du­plic­i­tous ob­struc­tions ever seen on Capi­tol Hill.

From McCon­nell’s per­spec­tive, ev­ery­thing went ac­cord­ing to plan.

“I felt, per­son­ally, very in­vested in this is­sue,” McCon­nell re­called in a re­cent in­ter­view in his Capi­tol of­fice, still boast­ful nearly three weeks later. “One of the hap­pi­est nights of my Se­nate ca­reer.”

And why not? Among all the other strate­gic ben­e­fits, there’s also this: Af­ter years of doubt­ing McCon­nell’s ide­o­log­i­cal cre­den­tials, con­ser­va­tives have fi­nally ral­lied around him.

Some Democrats still have trou­ble talk­ing about Gar­land’s fate. Sen. Christo­pher A. Coons (D-Del.), a mem­ber of the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, took a deep breath when he heard McCon­nell’s de­scrip­tion of Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion as one of his “hap­pi­est nights” ever.

Then Coons sighed. Then he sat silent. For 19 sec­onds.

Fi­nally, he jabbed at McCon­nell’s self-pro­claimed ti­tle of pro­tec­tor of the Se­nate as a unique in­sti­tu­tion. “I con­tinue to hope that Ma­jor­ity Leader McCon­nell will prove him­self more an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist than a par­ti­san,” Coons said. “I found his will­ing­ness to pre­vent for 10 months any hear­ing or vote on Judge Mer­rick Gar­land to be an un­prece­dented vi­o­la­tion of long-stand­ing tra­di­tion and rules of the Se­nate.”

McCon­nell and Se­nate Repub­li­cans said they had prece­dent on their side, but in the early days af­ter Scalia’s death, they strug­gled to find ex­am­ples when the Se­nate had sim­ply re­fused to con­sider a nom­i­nee be­cause the va­cancy had oc­curred in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year.

Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Se­nate mi­nor­ity leader at the time, pre­dicted that McCon­nell would fold. But then Repub­li­cans found video of a 1992 Se­nate floor speech by Joe Bi­den, then chair­man of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, declar­ing that if a va­cancy opened up that sum­mer, he would not con­sider the nom­i­nee.

Repub­li­cans dug in for a po­lit­i­cal fight, but some re­mained less sure of what the po­lit­i­cal fall­out would be. “I don’t think I per­ceived the po­lit­i­cal pluses of the ac­tual va­cancy,” Sen. Roy Blunt (RMo.), who faced one of the tough­est re­elec­tions of 2016, said of McCon­nell’s strat­egy.

For Blunt’s first 51/2 years in the Se­nate, vot­ers com­plained most of­ten about fed­eral reg­u­la­tions, he said. That changed last sum­mer.

“Start­ing in Au­gust, the one thing I heard about over and over was how im­por­tant the court was,” Blunt re­called. The “ac­tual va­cancy” — in­stead of the hy­po­thet­i­cal open­ings given the ad­vanced age of many jus­tices — was “in­cred­i­bly fo­cus­ing” for con­ser­va­tives, he said.

Blunt won his race by less than three per­cent­age points, a nar­row enough vic­tory that the court va­cancy may have been the de­cid­ing fac­tor.

In the in­ter­view, McCon­nell re­vealed that he did more than just hold the line against Gar­land. He po­si­tioned him­self as one of Trump’s key Supreme Court ad­vis­ers. He sug­gested to can­di­date Trump that he come up with a list of con­tenders for the court — and im­por­tantly, he di­rected him to the con­ser­va­tive Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety for ad­vice.

Trump took the ad­vice and pub­lished a list of 21 names, in­clud­ing Gor­such. One­time ri­vals, in­clud­ing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), cited that list in en­dors­ing Trump for pres­i­dent.

On Elec­tion Day, Trump won al­most the ex­act same level of sup­port among self-iden­ti­fied Repub­li­cans as Mitt Rom­ney had in 2012. He ac­tu­ally per­formed a lit­tle bet­ter than Rom­ney with white evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, a stun­ning feat for a New Yorker mar­ried three times who has sup­ported abor­tion rights in the past and shows no ob­vi­ous com­fort talk­ing about faith.

McCon­nell cred­its his Supreme Court strat­egy as a crit­i­cal fac­tor in Trump’s vic­tory.

“The sin­gle big­gest is­sue in bring­ing Repub­li­cans home in the end was the Supreme Court,” he said. “The sin­gle big­gest is­sue.”

Two weeks af­ter the elec­tion, at its an­nual gala din­ner, the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety hon­ored McCon­nell as a po­lit­i­cal hero.

Now, McCon­nell com­fort­ably guar­an­tees that the Se­nate will con­firm Gor­such.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who calls the va­cancy a “stolen seat,” said Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion must clear a 60-vote hur­dle to end a fil­i­buster — a procla­ma­tion McCon­nell be­lit­tled be­cause it came “be­fore he even knew who the nom­i­nee was.”

Com­ments like that drive Democrats mad. In their minds, McCon­nell made the ex­act same dec­la­ra­tion two hours af­ter Scalia’s death was an­nounced, block­ing a nom­i­nee one month be­fore Obama even an­nounced Gar­land.

Some Democrats, in­clud­ing Coons, are try­ing to keep an open mind about Gor­such — so long as the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee is given plenty of time to con­sider the nom­i­na­tion, all the proper doc­u­ments are filed and the full Se­nate holds a long, fair de­bate.

That might fore­stall a fil­i­buster and avoid a messy showdown over the rules of the cham­ber that would look like just an­other day of Wash­ing­ton dys­func­tion to the rest of the coun­try.

It’s true that McCon­nell would rather, in def­er­ence to Se­nate tra­di­tion, avoid dis­man­tling the power of the fil­i­buster — known on Capi­tol Hill as the “nu­clear op­tion” — to jam through the nom­i­na­tion. But it’s also true that there is peril for Democrats, par­tic­u­larly those from con­ser­va­tive states who are up for re­elec­tion next year, in op­pos­ing Gor­such.

McCon­nell views Gor­such’s con­fir­ma­tion as a key part of his own legacy. He has said re­peat­edly that his nom­i­na­tion will pre­vail with or with­out Demo­cratic sup­port. With hear­ings sched­uled to be­gin March 20, McCon­nell has con­fi­dently set April 7, the eve of a two-week spring break for sen­a­tors, as his goal for con­fir­ma­tion.

“It makes me feel par­tic­u­larly proud,” he said, “be­cause that was, some would ar­gue, the sin­gle big­gest de­ci­sion I made in the last Congress.”

“I found his will­ing­ness to pre­vent for 10 months any hear­ing or vote on Judge Mer­rick Gar­land to be an un­prece­dented vi­o­la­tion of long­stand­ing tra­di­tion and rules of the Se­nate.” Sen. Christo­pher A. Coons (D-Del.)

OLIVER CON­TR­ERAS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) de­clared last year, af­ter the death of An­tonin Scalia, that no Supreme Court nom­i­nee from then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama would ever be con­sid­ered.

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