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Week In Politics: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Death Sets Up Political Battle


The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a national loss, but in an election year, it also presents President Trump with a political opportunity to put another conservative judge on the Supreme Court - or try to. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And remind us of what I'll call the usual timelining - timeline for nominating, vetting and confirming a justice to the court.

ELVING: In recent history, it's been nine or 10 weeks. There's usually a period of respectful deference to the deceased. And let us just say at this juncture, it is a pity we can't simply defer the political talk for a while and salute the most extraordinary woman - this most extraordinary woman - and her contribution to history. But I think we know that's not possible in this hyper-political season.

So very shortly, we expect the president will have a name. That person will be presented at the White House, have a round of courtesy visits with senators. Then there are usually hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, although we know in 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to do that. So assuming hearings do happen in this case, then there are deliberations and a vote in the Judiciary Committee after a week of hearings, followed by more deliberation and questions for the nominee in time, and then a floor debate and a vote of the full Senate.

Now, it's a little hard to think of all that unfolding in...

SIMON: Yeah.

ELVING: ...Just six weeks before November, especially given the pandemic restrictions and the senators' eagerness to be out campaigning for their own reelection.

SIMON: OK, now famously in 2016, Justice Scalia died in February. Mitch McConnell, also then the Republican Senate majority leader, refused to move forward with President Obama's selection even before Merrick Garland was named. And last night, little over an hour, I gather, after the announcement of Justice Ginsburg's death, Senator McConnell said that he's going to try and bring Trump's nominee, whoever she or he is, to a vote. And the election is now only six weeks away.

ELVING: That's right. And, of course, there's already a firestorm of criticism around that apparent hypocrisy. Of course, McConnell has long anticipated this and said it's all different here. Here's his rationale.

He says that in 2014, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because they had pledged to check and balance Barack Obama in the last two years of his term. Now he says, by contrast, Americans have reelected that Republican majority in 2016 and in 2018 because they had pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly with respect to the judiciary. And so he says they will keep that promise, too.

So whatever we think of that reasoning, Scott, the real question is whether enough of the Republican majority in the Senate will find it satisfying, at least on a political level. And we know that several senators, including present and past chairs of the Judiciary Committee, have said in the past they would wait until after the election in a case such as this. So we will see if they stand by that.

SIMON: And President Trump put out a long list of names just last week - too many to go through now. But what do you foresee in a possible pick he might make six weeks before the election or less?

ELVING: It will be someone from his list, someone with impeccable credentials as a conservative, probably a member of the Federalist Society, as his other nominees have been, quite likely a woman or a racial minority. My guess is that the woman who was the backup choice last time when Brett Kavanaugh was nominated probably has the inside track. She is Amy Coney Barrett, already a federal appeals court judge. And like several other current members of the court, she's a devout Catholic known for conservative views on social issues and also a mother of seven children.

SIMON: And let's just mark before we move on, this could be - this could join the pandemic with motivating the election, couldn't it?

ELVING: When the late Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, the filling of his seat was of enormous importance to social conservatives, especially religious conservatives who voted that year perhaps with some doubts about Donald Trump, but they really wanted to fill that Scalia seat. So this opening could do the same. Quite possibly, it could also become the focal point for half a dozen close contests for Senate seats as well.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.