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No Supreme Court nominee yet, but McConnell already on the cusp of having the votes

Posted September 22, 2020 7:33 a.m. EDT

— Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been steadfast that the US Senate will vote on President Donald Trump's nomination to the Supreme Court this year. In less than three days -- and before a nominee has even been selected -- it appears McConnell is already on track to have the votes.

Bottom line

The speed with which Senate Republicans have largely fallen in line behind the push to quickly confirm Ruth Bader Ginsburg's successor on the Supreme Court would be head-snapping if it didn't line up with their support for Trump's hundreds of judicial nominees over the course of the last three-plus years. There is still a long way to go -- an actual nominee is a pretty key ingredient here -- abut as one Republican official involved in the process told me: "Things are falling into line -- and fast."

What to watch today

Senate GOP closed-door conference lunch, 12:45 p.m. ET.

Senate leadership stakeout, 2 p.m.

Days until the election

42

The math

Democrats, limited in their options to do anything on their own to stop any confirmation, have pushed hard to wrangle four Republicans to join them in opposing moving forward on a nominee until after the next president is sworn into office. They secured two senators -- Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- who said they opposed any vote before the election.

But the final two have been elusive. And may not exist at all. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Cory Gardner, both considered possible defectors, came out in support of moving forward with the nomination on Monday. While there are a handful of other GOP senators who haven't publicly made their views known, Republicans and Democrats alike acknowledge there's really only one wild card left: Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. His GOP colleagues are skeptical he'd defect, but even if he does, that would make three.

Three isn't enough to stop the nomination.

Graham's pledge

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham didn't hedge on where things stood on Monday night.

"We got the votes to confirm Justice Ginsburg's replacement before the election," Graham said on Fox News. "We are going to move forward in the committee. We're going to report the nomination out of the committee to the floor of the United States Senate so we can vote before the election."

Notably, McConnell has not weighed in yet on the timing of the confirmation vote. But Graham, backed by Trump himself, is making clear the direction he plans on this heading in the weeks ahead.

A note

It's tough to overstate how important the rapid coalescing of Republicans is to the eventual confirmation. Outside groups are pledging millions. Democrats are organizing major public pressure campaigns to try and turn a tide that is moving sharply against them. Early public polls don't necessarily line up with the GOP's confirmation efforts in an election year. But before any of those potential pressure points could settle into play, GOP senators have taken themselves out of play as wild cards or potential no votes. That's enormous.

"Even the perception that this is over before it really gets started is invaluable at this point," the outside adviser told CNN.

But a reminder

There is still a process ahead for whoever is selected. Public vetting. Committee vetting. Private meetings with senators. Public hearings. As the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh made crystal clear, things can go sideways quickly over the course of the next several weeks. That, at this point, is the primary hope for Democrats. And that is what McConnell and top advisers are working now, quietly and behind the scenes, to ensure doesn't happen this time around.

The nominee

Republicans have taken care to be deferential to Trump's selection process -- and whoever he ends up selecting. But there is a clear preference among GOP senators at this point, according to multiple senators and senior aides: Amy Coney Barrett.

McConnell, though careful not to put his thumb on the scale, has made clear in conversations with Trump and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone that the GOP conference would be comfortable with Barrett, two people with knowledge of the conversations told CNN. Sen. Todd Young, who hails from Barrett's home state of Indiana and leads the Senate Republican campaign arm, has also been an advocate, the people said.

Again, Republicans have made clear they're likely to support whoever Trump picks given his record of selections up to this point. But it's clear Barrett has fans on Capitol Hill.

Along those lines

Sen. Josh Hawley, the first-term Missouri Republican, took to the Senate floor in late July to announce he would "vote only for those Supreme Court nominees who have explicitly acknowledged that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, the day it was decided."

It was a red line on the decision that provides federal protection for abortions that was laid out for just this moment -- and had the potential to create problems for GOP leaders and future nominees. For all of the attention paid to moderates on the issue of abortion in past confirmations, Hawley's position made clear there was a new dynamic at play.

At least one nominee meets Hawley's standard, the senator told CNN's Manu Raju on Monday: Barrett.

"As to the question on the Roe, I think she meets that standard," Hawley said.

Schumer's plea

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer put the stakes in stark terms on Monday -- and echoed what many of his Democratic colleagues said to reporters throughout the day:

"Tell me how this would not spell the end of this supposedly great deliberative body? Because I don't see how. There's only one way, one way for this chamber to retain its dignity through this difficult chapter, and that is for four brave senate Republicans to commit to rejecting any nominee until the next president is installed."

Where Democrats stand

Like their colleagues across the aisle, Democratic senators have very disparate views of how to handle the next few months. Practically, Democrats can't block this nomination even if they can deploy dilatory tactics along the way. But, the strategy they use over the next 40 days is going to force the party into an early test of who they will be after the election and what the Democratic message and tactics will be if they win the White House and take back the Senate.

Joe Biden's message here has been moderate, measured. He wants to appeal to his former colleagues' conscience as they weigh their decision on moving ahead with a SCOTUS nominee. But Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's strategies have been more pointed. Schumer warning his caucus on a private call over the weekend that nothing will be off the table if Republicans push ahead. Pelosi warning that there are plenty of "arrows" in her quiver.

Some liberal outside groups and supporters have begun to advocate for adding more justices to the court if Democrats win in November. That would require a change of the rules, which would eradicate the filibuster. That doesn't sit well with some members.

"There are some people who think we ought to stick to the issues like health care, voting rights," Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana said. "I think we ought to stick to the issues."

Tactics and strategy

For more moderate Democrats, even opening up a potential discussion about adding more seats to the Supreme Court or killing the filibuster, they argue, makes it harder to win the public campaign that is waging right now over the court.

"I don't think that is the right message. I don't think we should be talking about retaliation. That should not be in our lexicon," Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat up for reelection in Alabama, told me.

The push and pull of what the liberal base wants right now and what members are comfortable with is going to be worth watching because the tone and tenor of this debate may look and sound different depending on what Democrat is asked.

"This is an illegitimate process and the Democrats need to use every tool at their disposal to stop it. People across this country do not want to see Donald Trump confirm a Supreme Court nominee in the last days before an election," Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said. "This isn't about retaliation. This is about what is at stake."

What to read

Read Manu, Clare Foran and Ted Barrett for all of the latest on the day that was on Capitol Hill.

Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins take you inside the White House process.

Joan Biskupic takes a look at the front-runner: Amy Coney Barrett.

Devan Cole ,Ariane de Vogue and Katelyn Polantz on another top candidate: Barbara Lagoa.

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