Supreme Distractions: Court vacancy scrambles agendas for both parties

By Jonathan Blakely

Apr 12, 2010 7:59am

By Rick Klein: Sometimes you get to choose an agenda. And sometimes the agenda chooses you. No matter what happens with the Supreme Court nomination President Obama gets to make, it will reroute serious time and energy away from everything else Democrats might have hoped to do this year. (How deep are we into the legislative period that was supposed to be about jobs, jobs, jobs?) The political landscape looks far different than it did a year ago, when the afterglow of an inauguration helped Sonia Sotomayor glide (by modern standards) to the high court. This time around, there’s too much at stake for there not to be a fight. And we know a little about what these can look like in the Tea Party era — where, of course, the Constitution takes on particular relevance. It’s not necessarily a comfortable fight for Republicans, either. (Will they want to say “no” once again? And can you hold off on judicial restraint long enough to have courts throw out the health care law?) As we shuttle between nukes and nuclear options this week — with financial reform and energy and education and immigration reform jostling for some spring-time attention — there will be one overriding story until and unless there are nine justices again. The choice — if you can call it one: “The retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens presents a test for Republicans as much as it does for President Obama as they weigh how much they want to wage a high-profile battle over ideological issues in the months before crucial midterm elections,” Peter Baker and Carl Hulse report in the Sunday New York Times. Gearing up: “Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, said GOP resentment over health care could spill into a confirmation battle because lawsuits challenging the health care law may go to the high court,” USA Today’s Fredreka Schouten reports. “Perkins said he is prepared to engage 500,000 activists to lobby lawmakers if Obama does not ‘pick a nominee who will exercise judicial restraint.’ ” Except when it comes to health care? “While the issue of whether to criminalize abortion tended to favor Democrats, the political issues that now raise constitutional questions tend to favor Republicans,” Michael Barone writes in his Washington Examiner column. “Such questions may not persuade an Obama nominee to rule that Obamacare is unconstitutional. But they can raise politically damaging issues in a high-visibility forum at a time when Democrats would like to move beyond health care and talk about jobs and financial regulation.” Another name for your lists: “Former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice Leah Ward Sears is also on the short list,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. “Sears, who will turn 55 in June, was the first female African-American chief justice in US history, and when nominated for the state supreme court by then-Gov. Zell Miller in 1992, she became the first woman and the youngest person to ever sit on the court.‪” The Gang of 14 is cool again: “I am going to abide by what became known as the rule of the ‘Gang of 14,’ ” Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told ABC’s Jake Tapper on “This Week.” “It is unlikely that there would be a filibuster, except if there is an extraordinary circumstance.  I’m never going to take it off the table because of what the Democrats have achieved here, which is the possibility of a filibuster.” Added Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.: “The likelihood of a filibuster is tiny.” Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on “Meet the Press”: “But if the nominee is one that is so activist like Goodwin Liu … if it’s somebody like that, clearly outside the mainstream, then I think every power should be utilized to protect the Constitution.” Politico’s Glenn Thrush: “Obama’s aides have narrowed down their shortlist to about 10 names. None of the names known to be under consideration appear to be as controversial as Liu — and an administration official told POLITICO on Friday that the goal was to tap someone who was ‘confirmable.’ ” What are the odds? “The looming battle over replacing Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens may only amount to a polite skirmish,” James Gordon Meek reports in the New York Daily News. Before we get there — a busy two-day summit in Washington — and a critical few days for a president who is framing his foreign policy around this very issue. No major breakthroughs or announcements are expected — but this is all about Iran and North Korea, in the end. Starting scary: “On the eve of his Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama issued a dire warning: terrorist groups are trying to obtain nuclear weapons — and they will use it,” ABC’s Jake Tapper reports. Said Obama: “We know that organizations like al Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon — a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.” Tapper, on “GMA” Monday: “The goal is to have an agreement that there is this real threat out there — 2,100 tons of uranium and plutonium that could be used to make missiles or weapons of some sort.” Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on “GMA”: If the US continues building up its missile defense system, “Then we can pose the question about a premature end to the agreement. But I hope something like that will not happen.” Medvedev on Obama: “He’s a very comfortable partner. It’s very interesting to be with him. The most important thing that distinguishes him from many other people — I won’t name anyone by name — he’s a thinker. He thinks when he speaks… Obviously I do have someone on my mind. I don’t want to offend anyone.” About his Sunday: “President Barack Obama demonstrated ahead of a two-day nuclear-security summit that starts Monday how much he would bend on issues like human rights to advance nuclear controls that have climbed to the top of his foreign-policy agenda. Meeting Sunday with world leaders with problematic nuclear records but vital roles in securing such weapons and materials, he pressed the heads of [Kazakhstan], India, Pakistan and South Africa on efforts to control nuclear materials and weapons,” The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Weisman reports. “Although nuclear proliferation has been a top stated issue for presidents back to Jimmy Carter, there has never been a summit this large dedicated strictly to the issue of nuclear terrorism and security. Mr. Obama has promised concrete results.” About the president’s Monday — per the White House: “Today, the President will participate in the Nuclear Security Summit, which is dedicated to nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism. The President will meet with leaders of 46 countries to discuss ways to secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world. “The President will hold separate bilateral meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Prime Minister Mohammed Najib Abdul Razak of Malaysia, President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine, President Serzh Sargsian of Armenia, and President Hu Jintao of China at the Washington Convention Center.  … “In the evening, the President will also welcome each head of delegation to the National Security Summit. There will be Nuclear Security Summit pool coverage. Later, the President will host a working dinner for Heads of Delegation in the Washington Convention Center Dining Room.” Not on these tables: “Now, as critics of the arrangement point out, the agreement frees up older facilities that India can devote to making its own new generation of weapons, escalating one arms race even as President Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia sign accords to shrink arsenals built during the cold war,” The New York Times’ David Sanger and William Broad report. “For all its symbolism and ceremony, this meeting has quite limited goals: seeking ways to better secure existing supplies of bomb-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The problem that India and Pakistan represent, though, is deliberately not on the agenda,” they write. “Obama administration officials were quietly crafting a common position for world powers that remain sharply divided on the best way to safeguard bomb-making materials,” Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times. “The meeting is a matter of personal prestige for President Obama, who campaigned on a promise to secure ‘loose nukes’ within four years. He pledged last week that this meeting would yield a concrete plan and not just ‘some vague, gauzy statement.’ ” Other goals: “Throughout the two-day gathering, Iran will be a subtext as Obama works to gain support for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Tehran for its refusal to shut down what the United States and many key allies assert is a nuclear weapons program,” the AP’s Steven R. Hurst and Anne Gearan write. Worries, down the street, and down the road: “Senate Republicans say they are willing to block ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that President Barack Obama signed with Russia unless the administration follows through with key policy concessions,” Roll Call’s David M. Drucker reports. In New Orleans, picking up the pieces from a cattle call that wasn’t really answered: “Mitt Romney, the once and likely future presidential candidate, didn’t show up to address the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, but that didn’t stop him from walking away with the big prize from the gathering,” ABC’s David Chalian reports. “He won the straw poll by a single vote. Romney received 439 votes compared to Ron Paul’s 438-vote haul.” “[Sarah] Palin has little organizational infrastructure and did apparently nothing to win the contest while Romney enthusiasts were out in force,” Politico’s Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin report. “Still, that Romney would win the poll at an event he didn’t show up for while Palin would come in tied for third place a day after she packed a room full of adoring fans suggests the sort of hyper-engaged activists who show up at such gatherings are practical-minded in their preferences for the next presidential campaign.” 
No 2012ers? No problem: “There is a far different message coming out of New Orleans this weekend: 2012 can wait,” Dan Balz wrote in his “Sunday Take” column. “The absence of 2012 buzz in New Orleans underscores the singular focus for a party eager to return to power. There is also a recognition that any perceived failures in November could make 2012 even more difficult.”  Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith: “Presidential cycles have in recent years started earlier and earlier, but the race to become the GOP nominee in 2012 seems to be reversing that trend.” Mark Halperin’s New Orleans surprises: “The near-absence of speaker mentions of the looming Supreme Court fight… The relatively few mentions of social issues – the focus was almost all on ObamaCare and spending… The lack of a widespread desire among the delegates to see Sarah Palin run for president, even from her supporters.” Apologies aside — not a great weekend for Michael Steele: “Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele tried to couple his major donors event with the SRLC meeting, but ran into problems relating to the turmoil over a strip-club visit and other charges of financial sloppiness at the RNC,” Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times. “Few wealthy potential contributors to the RNC-major donors event showed up. Worse, some of his party’s best-known headliners declined his invitation to address his RNC fundraising events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Windsor Court Hotel, within easy walking distance of the Hilton Riverside Hotel, where the SRLC was holding its events.” On the Hill — with Congress back in session for a long work period: “Congress is poised for another partisan showdown over extending unemployment insurance, as concerns about the growing budget deficit have complicated the path forward for an otherwise popular program,” Ben Pershing writes for The Washington Post. “On its first day back in session following a two-week recess, the Senate is scheduled to vote Monday on whether to end debate on a measure extending jobless benefits, subsidies for the COBRA health insurance program and federal flood insurance through May 5.” Full plates: “The fierce healthcare fight appears to have drained the desire to tackle politically bruising issues such as global warming this year, but the legislative agenda is laden with popular items that are hard to define in strictly partisan terms: legislation to extend unemployment benefits; a landmark bill to crack down on Wall Street excesses; additional efforts to bolster the still-anemic economic recovery; and possible ratification of a historic nuclear arms treaty,” the Los Angeles Times’ Janet Hook reports. Think this will last? “House leaders are preparing a schedule of short weeks and relatively easy votes over the next seven weeks as they aim for a smooth entry to election season,” The Hill’s Jared Allen writes. A Pennsylvania Senate debate, without a Pennsylvania senator present: “Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak blamed Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey’s conservative policies for wrecking the economy as the two clashed in a debate Sunday that was a possible preview of the general election,” Thomas Fitzgerald reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Think both men want this matchup? “I respect Joe Sestak, and I think he’s a man who stands in stark contrast to his opponent, who, frankly, has a hard time showing up to a debate because he’s stood on both sides of every issue,” Toomey, R-Pa., said. White House likes: “The nation may be divided over the wisdom of President Barack Obama’s big new health care law, but it largely delivers on more than 30 specific promises he made as a candidate,” the AP’s Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reports. “Americans basically got what the majority voted for when they elected Obama in 2008, although many people today might not realize there are costs as well as benefits in the health plan’s fine print….
Obama kept most of his promises, but not all.” 
The Kicker: “I was born in Iowa. I am an Iowan . . .” — Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to Iowa Radio’s O. Kay Henderson, while attending a fundraiser in Sioux City for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. “It’s sort of feeling that it’s a nit, that it is not significant, it’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t amount to diddly.” — Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., on the criticism of Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Va., for his initial Confederate History Month resolution that did not include a reference to slavery.
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