Grassley at center of Supreme Court drama

Polls show nation deeply divided on how to proceed

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WASHINGTON — As the White House shifts its vetting of potential Supreme Court nominees into high gear, the fate of that nomination is set to rest largely with the 82-year-old chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee: Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley.

Grassley said in a Washington Post op-ed published Friday, co-authored with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, that the Senate should “withhold its consent” for anyone President Barack Obama nominates to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

But in earlier public comments, Grassley did not rule out holding hearings or votes on the nominee — which have emerged as points of division for Senate Republicans determined to block an Obama nominee but also blunt political attacks that could threaten their majority.

“I will take it a step at a time,” Grassley told The Gazette during a town-hall meeting this week in Marengo. “The president hasn’t nominated anyone yet.”

Grassley’s steps as Judiciary chairman stand to put him at the center of a monthslong, bare-knuckle political fight unlike any other he has experienced during his 35 years in the Senate.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday it will probably be a few weeks before Obama makes a nomination. The list of candidates is not yet final, he said, but lawyers have prepared dossiers on potential nominees’ records, experience and other matters.

One of many names circulating as possible nominees could make it even more complicated for Grassley — Jane Kelly of Cedar Rapids, a former federal public defender whose ascent to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2013 Grassley had championed. She was confirmed by the Senate in a 96-0 vote.

Grassley is among a group of Senate leaders, including McConnell, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vermont, whom Obama has called to convey his determination to nominate.

Last year, Grassley became the first non-lawyer ever to chair the Judiciary Committee, passing up opportunities to helm the powerful Finance or Budget panels for a chance to oversee judicial confirmations and exert influence on many other legal matters.

After making numerous, sometimes contradictory Supreme Court comments earlier this week, Grassley did not make any public statements Friday following the publication of the op-ed. A Republican aide said he was unlikely to further address the matter until Republican senators meet next week.

Grassley appeared to want to block any Obama nomination since hours after Scalia’s death was announced Saturday. Grassley declared then that “it only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court justice.”

But after spending his entire Senate career on the Judiciary Committee and participating in confirmation hearings for 13 Supreme Court nominees, the senator might find it difficult to pass up the chance to chair one himself. He is also seeking election to a seventh term this year, and may wish to avoid becoming a symbol of Washington obstruction.

Polls reflect a country almost evenly divided on how best to proceed — largely splitting along party lines.

In a poll released Thursday by CBS News, 47 percent said the next justice should be appointed by Obama while 46 percent said the choice should be left for whoever is elected in November. A Reuters/Ipsos poll, also released Thursday, showed that 54 percent believe Obama should make the nomination.

As debate over Scalia’s replacement raged on, the president and first lady went Friday afternoon to the Supreme Court to pay their respects as his body lied in repose in the Great Hall. The two met “privately with some members of Justice Scalia’s family,” Earnest said later.

Some conservatives have criticized Obama for not planing to attend Saturday’s funeral Mass for Scalia, but Earnest said Friday’s visit let the president “both pay his personal respects to those who loved Justice Scalia, but also pay tribute to the outsized impact that he had on the country and on our legal system.”

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