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Politics Chat: Justice Ginsburg's Supreme Court Vacancy Politicized By Senate


We just heard there what mourners were saying about the legacy of Justice Ginsburg yesterday. But her passing and who she will be replaced with on the Supreme Court are being fought over today by Senate Democrats and Republicans. That choice will also play into the upcoming presidential elections. And we have national political correspondent Mara Liasson here to talk us through what we can expect to see.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: So even before Justice Ginsburg passed away, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last year said that if a justice were to pass away in 2020 that the Republicans would move to fill that spot on the bench before the election. He was clear. But are there any potential swing votes in the party?

LIASSON: Well, right now McConnell has 53 votes in the Senate, 53 Republicans. He can afford to lose three. Murkowski and Collins have already said they want to wait until after the election, after the inauguration to vote. So we haven't heard yet from Mitt Romney, who's a potential third vote. But Mitch McConnell has to manage - balance two different risks - the risks to a Senate majority if he goes before the election and the risk if he waits until afterwards. He might have fewer Republicans in the Senate. And that will be potentially harder to ram this through in a lame duck if the Democrats win the White House and the Senate back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is something McConnell vehemently opposed when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in February of 2016, right? He insisted that the spot not be filled until after the election.

LIASSON: That's right. That's what he said then. But this isn't about principle or consistency or avoiding charges of hypocrisy. This is about power. And don't forget it wasn't just McConnell. Several Republican senators who are running for re-election this year said the same thing, even Lindsey Graham, who said, I want you to use my words against me if a Republican is in office and a vacancy comes up in the election year. And Democrats will be doing that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did the Democrats have a hand to play here other than just, you know, highlighting the flip flops of their Republican colleagues?

LIASSON: Well, they don't have the votes, but they first want to use this issue to help them win the election, win the White House and the Senate, boost turnout, get a focus on the courts. The story for the past 40 years since Roe really has been that the Republicans are on the losing end of the court, so they feel more energized about the courts as an issue.

Democrats took the courts for granted. They had a majority on the court for so long. Now that majority has eroded, so they have more at stake. They have something to lose. They can rally around that. And remember this isn't just replacing Scalia with Gorsuch, one conservative for another. This is changing the balance of the power on the courts, cementing a 6-3 conservative majority for generations. So Democrats are hoping this will energize their voters.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At his rally last night in Fayetteville, N.C., President Trump said Justice Ginsburg would be replaced with another female justice. And this might happen as soon as this week. His supporters were chanting, fill that seat. So this is becoming another rallying cry in his campaign.

LIASSON: There's no doubt that the Trump campaign thinks this could change the dynamic in the race in his favor. Remember changing the - cementing a conservative majority on the court has been a 40-year project for Republicans. So this isn't a Trump thing. This is a Republican conservative thing. And that's why it's an advantage for the president because all of a sudden, the presidential campaign is no longer about COVID and his leadership. It's about the courts, and it can potentially remind many Republican voters of why they held their noses and voted for Trump in 2016. No, it's the judges, stupid. So they can do it again. For Democrats, this could also be a rallying cry for younger women who idolized Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It could energize suburban female voters because the ACA, Obamacare, is in the balance. Democrats have already broken fundraising records since Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. So we'll see who this energizes more.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And remind us, what does this mean for the court's long term?

LIASSON: Well, this will have a major impact on American life if we have a 6-3 conservative majority. They - in the short term, they can overturn the ACA. They can eviscerate Roe. Also, it has the potential to put the court at odds in the long term with majority public opinion on many issues - climate change, school prayer, gun safety, the structure of government, voting rights. And then you have the big debate about minority rule - you know, president elected without the popular vote majority, Senate where 53 Republican senators represent less than 50% of Americans. I mean, these are the kinds of debates that this will spark.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.