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Impact of wider GOP majority on court

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON–The swift affirmation of Senate Republicans to President Trump’s prospective seizure of a 6-3 control on the highest court casts a dark shadow over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s aspirations for a progressive agenda if he is elected in November.

Hopes that at least four Republicans in the Senate would vote against holding prompt hearings before the election to fill the vacancy caused by the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quickly vanished, when Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah declared he would not join in the opposition and most others fell in line.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thus got away with shamelessly abandoning the purported principle at stake in his 2016 denial of a hearing and vote for then President Barack Obama’s nominee for the court, Judge Merrick Garland. At that time, McConnell stated that any appointment in the final year of a presidency should be held off until after the next presidential election.

Upon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, Democrats demanded, to no avail, that McConnell’s dictum in the Garland case should be applied again. But McConnell is determined to leave it to Trump, who already had made two appointments in Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh after taking office.

In immediate peril concerning Biden, if he is elected in November, is his pet legislative achievement as Obama’s vice president, the Affordable Care Act, known commonly as Obamacare.

Biden helped write it and nurse it through the process, and the once-controversial health insurance program is now highly valued among working Americans, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

A lower court ruling declaring it unconstitutional is now before the Supreme Court for review. If the ruling stands, a flat reversal would be a major blow to Biden if he is elected to the Oval Office barely more than a month from now.

Other key issues he advocates, including rejoining the international fight against climate change, retaining reproductive and other women’s rights, also would be under fire from a Supreme Court dominated by Trump appointees.

That prospect has rekindled Democratic speculation of Biden taking the drastic step of nominating additional new justices, not prohibited by the Constitution. But he has said he does not favor such “court packing” as once attempted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, without success. In a debate last October, Biden said of the notion that to do so “we begin to lose any credibility the court has at all.”

Asked again Monday on a television interview in Wisconsin, he said he did not want to discuss the matter then “because it will shift the focus” (of the campaign), and that Trump “never wants to talk about the issue at hand and he always tries to change the subject.”

But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said in New York last Sunday that “once we win the (Senate) majority, God willing, everything is on the table.” There also has been talk of pushing for statehood status for Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to acquire additional Democratic votes in the Senate.

In any event, the sudden emergence of the Supreme Court vacancy has at least temporarily shifted the campaign dialogue away from the president’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.

It may give him some reprieve from the bombardment of criticism generated by Bob Woodward’s latest book disclosing that Trump knew as early as last February the severity of the health crisis, and that he intentionally “played it down” to avoid panicking the American public.

The stakes in the November presidential and congressional elections were already sky-high. Trump critics were determined to end his four-year detour from political normalcy, and the president was pulling out all stops to hold onto power, even threatening to fight a losing outcome on grounds of a “rigged” election against him.

With only 40 days to go, can America take much more of this madness?

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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