Republicans likely have enough support for a vote on Trump's Supreme Court nominee after Romney backs push to fill vacancy

Nicholas Wu

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump won a crucial victory in the battle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy caused by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Senate Republicans have largely coalesced around a goal of rapidly confirming a yet-to-be-named nominee, possibly before the November presidential election. 

Just four days after Ginsburg's death, wavering Senate Republicans have mostly lined up behind Trump's desire to move quickly on the nominee he intends to name Saturday – underscoring the president's tight grip on the party even as he faces a challenging path to reelection in most of the nation's battleground states.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who has had a combative relationship with Trump for years, became the latest lawmaker to embrace the president's desire to move forward with a confirmation in an election year, paving the way for conservatives to expand their control of the Supreme Court and dashing Democratic hopes of slowing the process down. 

"I intend to follow the Constitution and precedent in considering the president’s nominee," Romney announced Tuesday, joining several other centrist Republicans. "If the nominee reaches the Senate floor, I intend to vote based upon their qualifications."

Republican leaders have not presented a timeline for holding a vote to fill the vacancy, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued there is plenty of time to consider a nominee before the Nov. 3 election. Trump echoed that sentiment this week, asserting that "there’s really a lot of time" between now and the presidential election.

Most Republicans have sprinted away from concerns they raised four years ago about allowing then President Barack Obama to name Judge Merrick Garland to the court in an election year, giving Democrats a chance to charge hypocrisy but leaving them powerless to do much about it. In addition to Romney, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is retiring this year, and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who faces a tough election, have both indicated a willingness to move expeditiously toward approving Trump's pick.

Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have said they opposed moving forward to fill the vacancy before the election. 

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, told Capitol Hill reporters Tuesday "it would be a good idea for us to move forward" on a vote before the Nov. 3 election, though the timing was ultimately up to McConnell. 

Ginsburg to lie in state:Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to lie in state at US Capitol Friday after two days at Supreme Court

More:Gardner supports moving forward on Ginsburg seat, striking blow to Dem chances of halting nomination

If President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee is successfully confirmed, conservatives could gain a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, possibly for a generation because justices hold lifetime appointments. 

Republican Senator from Utah Mitt Romney speaks to reporters outside the Senate Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 21, 2020.

Romney told reporters on Capitol Hill later Tuesday "my liberal friends have over many decades gotten very used to the idea of having a liberal court. And that's not written in the stars."

He said he would leave the timing of a nomination and the vote up to Republican leaders in the Senate. 

Romney, a moderate Republican senator who has criticized Trump, was seen as a potential swing vote on the nomination. 

Democrats have heavily criticized Republicans for pushing forward on a vote to confirm a new Supreme Court nominee after they blocked President Barack Obama's nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, citing the proximity to a presidential election. Republicans argue the circumstances after Ginsburg's death are different because the presidency and Senate are held by the same party, whereas they were split between Republicans and Democrats in 2016. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday on the Senate floor McConnell had "defiled the Senate like no one in this generation and Leader McConnell may very well destroy it."

More:Then and now: What McConnell, others said about Merrick Garland in 2016 vs. after Ginsburg's death

Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning they could only lose four votes on a nomination if all Democrats voted against it. Only two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have said they opposed moving forward to fill the vacancy before the election, meaning Republicans likely have the votes to move forward on the nomination. 

More:Front-runner for Supreme Court nomination to replace Ginsburg is a favorite of religious conservatives

Trump tweeted Tuesday morning to say he would announce the nominee on Saturday, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the chair of the Senate panel presiding over judicial nominees, said Monday on Fox News that Republicans had the votes to fill the seat before the election. 

Opinion polling conducted over the weekend shows a majority of likely voters said Trump should not be able to fill the Supreme Court vacancy if he loses the election in November. 

According to a CNBC and Change Research poll, a little over half, or 52%, of likely voters in the battleground states of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin said Trump should not be able to fill the seat if he lost, and 57% of likely voters nationally held the same opinion.