Alan Fram

WASHINGTON: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell emphatically ruled out any Senate action on whomever President Barack Obama nominates to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, an extraordinary step that escalated the partisan election-year struggle over replacing the late Antonin Scalia. Democrats promised unremitting pressure on Republicans to back down or face the consequences in November’s voting.

After winning unanimous public backing from the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, McConnell told reporters that the panel would hold no hearings and ruled out a full Senate vote until the next president offers a nomination. Such steps would defy many decades of precedent that have seen even the most controversial choices questioned publicly by the Judiciary Committee and nearly always sent to the entire chamber for a vote, barring nominees the White House has withdrawn.

“In short, there will not be action taken,” McConnell told reporters.

The Kentucky Republican said he wouldn’t even meet with an Obama selection should the White House follow tradition and send the nominee to Capitol Hill to visit senators.

In remarks Tuesday at Georgetown University law school, Justice Samuel Alito sounded unfazed about possibly spending the rest of this year in a court whose members are locked in a 4-4 tie.

“We will deal with it,” Alito answered when asked about Republicans’ resolve to oppose anyone Obama nominates.

Obama is expected to announce a nomination in the next few weeks. Since the Senate started routinely referring presidential nominations to committees for action in 1955, every Supreme Court nominee not later withdrawn has received a Judiciary Committee hearing, according to the Senate Historical Office.

Republicans say it’s been more than eight decades since a nomination occurred and was filled in the same election year.

Democrats accused Republicans of following the lead of billionaire Donald Trump, a leading GOP presidential candidate who’s called on Senate Republicans to derail any Obama court selection. Democrats and some Republicans believe that if Trump is the GOP presidential nominee, he will cost Republicans seats in Congress.

“The party of Lincoln is now the party of Donald Trump,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters.

Filling the vacancy left by Scalia’s unexpected death on Feb. 13 is crucial because without him, the Supreme Court is left in a 4-4 knot between justices who are usually conservative and its liberal wing. The battle has invigorated both sides’ interest groups and voters who focus on abortion, immigration and other issues.