Here are two scenarios for Jan. 20, 2017. That’s the first day on the job for the 45th president of the United States.
Scenario one. President Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, unlike President Barack Obama on his first day on the job, are faced with a Republican-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate. That’s a GOP Congress that’s been carefully and deliberately crafted as a firewall against a Democratic president.
It’s a GOP Congress in which the majority leadership has repeatedly made clear their sole mission is to delay, dither, obstruct, gut and torpedo initiatives and legislation of a Democratic president from the budget to all level appointments. In short, a Congress that pretty much did just that during nearly every minute of Obama’s White House tenure.
Scenario two. President Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Mario Rubio on their first day in office face a Democratic-controlled Senate. Now the script is gently flipped. There is not the hell bent mission to gut or torpedo their initiatives and legislation.
However, if they carry through on their oft-stated collective campaign pledges to build a border wall, plow more ground troops into multiple countries, repeal Obamacare, gut or eliminate the IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and a litany of other federal agencies, not to mention try to dump anywhere from two to four more strict constructionist judges on the Supreme Court and throughout the federal judiciary, then the battle lines will quickly harden. Senate Democrats will be the firewall to their wholesale effort to roll back the 20th century.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is determined to do everything to prevent scenario number one from happening. He is absolutely horrified at the thought of scenario number two happening. So much so that he convened private meetings with GOP party leaders meeting in which he bluntly said that the GOP must do any and everything to ensure a congressional firewall against a Democratic president.
He meant the Senate. He took the virtually unheard of step of telling GOP Senate candidates and incumbents whose seats are on the block to feel free to distance themselves from a Trump presidential bid anyway they can if that’s what it takes to win election or re-election.
McConnell can count the numbers and the numbers are that the GOP must defend 24 seats while the Democrats get the much better of it with only 10 seats to defend. A swing of just four seats to the Democratic column will get the Senate back and give Clinton or Sanders some breathing space in trying to at least get a hearing on their legislative agenda and prospective appointments.
It’s those appointments starting right at the top with the Supreme Court that has the GOP in a nervous sweat about Senate control. It, not the House, is the sole determiner of who sits on the high court, the lower court benches, and key positions in federal agencies.
Those are all top-grade posts that initiate, make and implement crucial policy decisions after many congresspersons are long gone. The Senate majority leader has virtually dictatorial control over which of the president’s nominees are put to a confirmation vote.
The devastating result of that power was on full brute and naked display with the dozens of judicial and agency posts that were endlessly delayed, or outright sabotaged by the GOP-controlled Senate from Attorney General Loretta Lynch to the absolute refusal of McConnell to consider any Supreme Court nominee Obama will propose to replace the late Antonin Scalia. The stonewall of the nominees was so bad that at one point there were more than 150 nominations for executive and court spots that were pending in the Senate.
McConnell and GOP Senate leaders are well aware that this little shell game can be played by two. When Sen. Harry Reid became majority leader in January 2007, he played hard ball with a number of then President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees and delayed hearings. A Democratic Senate majority leader would almost be duty-bound to take a long hard look if not put the brakes completely on the Supreme Court picks of President Trump, Cruz or Rubio.
All almost certainly will do what Bush said and did and what Romney echoed in 2012. Bush said his prototype of an ideal Supreme Court judge was Thomas or Scalia. Romney, with much fanfare, said he would consult with hardline ultra-conservative Robert Bork on Supreme Court picks.
The parade of names they’d send up for confirmation almost certainly wouldn’t look much different than Thomas or Samuel Alito. That would ripple up and down the federal judiciary. The message being that strict constructionist’s like Thomas will face tough sledding in getting confirmed.
President Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Sanders or Clinton, it makes little difference in one respect. The Senate is the real key to the election of 2016.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “From Sanders to Trump: A Guide to the 2016 Presidential Primary Battles” (Amazon Kindle). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.