IOWA

Grassley’s Risky Supreme Court Gamble

The longtime senator’s decision to block a qualified nominee from receiving a hearing in his committee is rubbing his constituents the wrong way.

03.14.16 6:21 AM ET

Sen. Chuck Grassley is feeling the heat from back home.

He has kept his seat for the last 36 years by staying very in tune with his Iowa constituents, but as he gears up for re-election to a seventh six-year term, he is running into unexpected headwinds over his refusal to grant due process to anyone President Obama might nominate to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s death last month.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that’s his perogative, but it’s a choice that has perplexed those who respect the 82-year-old as an “institutionalist” and can’t believe total obstruction is his preferred way.

It is, however, the preference of Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who appears to have made the calculation that stonewalling an Obama appointee is better politics in the age of Trump than having hearings and holding a vote.  

Congressional sources expect President Obama to announce his nominee very soon and certainly before he leaves for Cuba—and deliberately while the Senate is in session—so there’s plenty of video of Republican senators running away from the nominee.  

If the GOP’s wall of opposition has any chance of cracking, it will take a sustained campaign of psychological warfare on the part of the White House and congressional Democrats, with Grassley as the prime target. He’s getting hammered in the editorial pages in Iowa, and now faces a potentially strong challenge from former state agriculture commissioner and lieutenant governor Patty Judge, who says Grassley’s refusal to hold hearings is tantamount to advocating government dysfunction.

On Tuesday, just days after announcing, Judge turned up at the Senate Democrats caucus luncheon, an invitation meant to show Grassley how seriously Democrats take her candidacy. Meanwhile, on an almost daily basis, Democratic leader Harry Reid takes to the Senate floor railing against Grassley. During one recent appearance, Reid stood next to a large placard with a quote from a Des Moines Register editorial, which read, “This isn’t the Chuck Grassley we thought we knew.”  

Grassley has returned fire, casting the attacks as “tantrums,” but for someone who has experienced little opposition over his long career, he is visibly annoyed at being in the crosshairs.

At a meeting last week of the Judiciary Committee, he repeated his refusal to hold hearings and said he would not bow to pressure. He said Democrats who float names of potential justices are playing “raw politics.”

He’s right about that, and it’s only going to get more intense. With Trump on his way to clinching the GOP nomination, the Senate Majority PAC began airing an ad in New Hampshire where Republican Kelly Ayotte is up for re-election saying, “Donald Trump wants the Senate to delay filling the Supreme Court vacancy so he can choose the nominee next year, and Senator Kelly Ayotte is right there to help.”

Grassley is new to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, taking the helm just a little over a year ago after serving on the committee for 26 years. As a lifelong farmer and a non-lawyer, he’s always been hyper-sensitive that he’s seen as neither smart enough to be running the prestigious committee or tough enough to stand up to leadership. Though moving steadily to the right since the rise of the Tea Party, he is often on the list of senators that might be gettable and could be in the mix on a deal, but then he rarely sees it through to deliver in the end, bowing to Tea Party pressure or pressure by the leadership.

In his first interviews with Iowa reporters, Grassley appeared open to following the normal confirmation process, but then McConnell “really squeezed him,” says a former Senate aide.

It was McConnell’s idea that all 11 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, including the chairman, sign a letter to him declaring there would be no hearings. As one of the Senate’s old “bulls,” Grassley didn’t like the leadership infringing on his power. And he didn’t like the way McConnell got out front saying there would be no hearings, forcing Grassley to walk back some of his early comments. It made him look like he was following someone else’s orders, always a sensitive issue for a senator who runs on his independence.

Grassley is paying the price for what looks to voters like kneejerk intransigence and naked politics.

“I understand McConnell’s logic, but it’s not accounting for the culture of Iowa,” says the former staffer.

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Or for that matter, the culture of the country, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that found 55 percent of registered voters disapprove of the Senate Republicans’ decision to withhold consideration of any Supreme Court nominee while President Obama is in office. The bulk of those voters, 45 percent, registered strong disapproval.

That’s why the White House thinks that for all of Grassley’s protestations, there could be some give in his position. “This is what happens when you draw a line in the sand too early,” says a Democrat aligned with the White House’s thinking that once Obama nominates someone, it will be very hard for the GOP to hold the line and not to have hearings.

For example, Jane Kelly, one of the candidates being vetted, won confirmation by the Senate 96 to 0 in 2013. A former public defender in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Grassley would be hard put to give her the stiff arm. Indeed, he has said that as an Iowan, she would be welcome in his office any time.

Still, if history is a guide, when it comes to bipartisanship, Grassley disappoints more often than not.

In 2009 as the White House was pressing for Republican support for the Affordable Care Act, Grassley spent countless hours sitting on the couch in the Oval Office telling President Obama that with just a little more time, he could bring along Republican votes on the critical Senate Finance Committee, where he was the ranking member.

“We had been investing a lot in Grassley,” recalls Jim Manley, then Democratic leader Harry Reid’s spokesman. Manley was on the golf course the morning after the Senate adjourned for its August recess when his phone rang with a reporter calling from Grassley’s press conference in Iowa.

The reporter wanted Reid’s reaction to Grassley using the phrase “death panels” for the first time. “I had to call Reid and say we’ve got a problem. Senator Grassley has gone rogue.”

“He was my early warning on Obamacare,” Manley recalled. “He was someone we thought was gettable. As soon as he mouthed the Tea Party line, we knew we had a problem.”

Once Obama nominates someone who is highly qualified and in ordinary times would be considered non-controversial, Grassley will be hard put to explain why he’s holding out for President Trump or Clinton or Sanders as the legitimate voice of the people. If Republicans could get past their irrational dislike of Obama, they would recognize that he brings a safer, centrist choice and more certainty than any of his likely successors.