McConnell’s decision has already outraged Democrats, who have called for the majority leader to wait until January — when the control of the White House and the Senate could shift — to put a nominee on the floor.
But McConnell, who blocked former President Barack Obama from placing Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court in 2016, and later changed Senate filibuster rules to put two of Trump’s picks on the high court, is once again playing power politics of the bare-knuckled kind. His announcement will now force the hand of any wavering Republicans. They are either with Trump and McConnell, or they are against them; there will be no middle ground in this fight.
Trump, McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are all up for reelection on Nov. 3. If Trump quickly announces a nominee and Graham goes ahead with a hearing and vote on the president’s choice, Democrats can slow down the process. But, with the GOP in the majority, they can’t stop it.
Graham on Friday did not immediately address the prospect of a Supreme Court confirmation fight, only offering condolences to the family of Ginsburg, who died at age 87 on Friday from complications related to pancreatic cancer.
“It was with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Justice Ginsburg,” said Graham, who faces a reelection battle in November that is shaping up as a battleground.
“Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazer who possessed tremendous passion for her causes. She served with honor and distinction as a member of the Supreme Court,” Graham added. “While I had many differences with her on legal philosophy, I appreciate her service to our nation.”
In 2018, Graham said in the midst of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing that he would “wait until the next election” if a vacancy were created in the final year of Trump’s presidency after the primaries had started. He has since wavered, saying early this year that the ugly confirmation fight over Kavanaugh changed his view.
But Graham, who faces a surprisingly tough challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison and is one of the president’s closest allies in the Senate, is almost certain to go along with McConnell.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said Friday evening that Trump should nominate a replacement as soon as next week.
“We cannot have Election Day come and go with a 4-4 court … and I think we risk a constitutional crisis if we do not have a nine-justice Supreme Court, particularly when there is such a risk of a contested litigation and a contested election,” Cruz, who was also on Trump’s shortlist of possible Supreme Court nominees, said on Fox News.
To meet that timeline, the Senate would have to work at a record pace. The average Supreme Court confirmation process takes more than two months from start to finish. The Senate could also confirm a Supreme Court nominee before the end of the lame duck session ends in early January.
Abortion, gun rights, climate change and the limits of executive power are already at the top of voters’ minds heading into the final weeks of the campaign. Ginsburg’s death, and the possibility that Trump and McConnell could solidify conservative control of the high court, will now become a critical focus of the battle for both the Senate and the White House in the final stretch of the campaign.
Vulnerable GOP senators including Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Cory Gardner of Colorado will not be able to escape questions over whether they would support filling Ginsburg’s seat before Election Day, or the even more troubling question about what would happen if Trump loses reelection and the Senate changes hands.
Across the aisle, Democrats are already lashing out at the looming move by Trump and McConnell, and their protestations are only going to grow louder in coming weeks.
Minutes after Ginsburg’s death was announced, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared that McConnell should leave Ginsburg’s seat open until next year, setting out the position all Senate Democrats will adopt.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” Schumer wrote on Twitter, using McConnell’s own words after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, echoed Schumer.
“Now is not the time for a partisan battle over the next nomination for the Supreme Court,” Feinstein said. “People have already begun to vote. It’s clear that the next president must nominate a future justice and the next Congress must consider that nominee.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was in lockstep with his party on Friday, writing in a statement: “The voters should pick a president, and that president should select a successor to Justice Ginsburg.”
According to NPR, Ginsburg dictated to her granddaughter in her final days that her “most fervent wish” was that she not be replaced on the Court “until a new president is installed.”
But the vacancy will also put pressure on the handful of Senate Republicans who have expressed concerns about confirming a Supreme Court Justice close to an election, as well as vulnerable Republicans in swing states.
Collins told The New York Times recently that she would not support seating a Supreme Court Justice in October, citing the proximity to the election. Collins praised Ginsburg in a statement on Friday night but made no mention of her position on the timing of a possible vote on a replacement. Collins was one of the deciding votes in Kavanaugh’s contentious October 2018 Senate confirmation and is trailing in some polls against her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon.
In an interview Friday before Ginsburg’s death, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she would not want to see a Supreme Court confirmation vote before the election.
“I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. We are some 50 days away from an election,” Murkowski told Alaska Public Radio.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who has broken with Trump in the past and voted to convict the president during his impeachment trial, on Friday said nothing on the timing of the vote but praised Ginsburg.
Yet that leaves McConnell with a vote to spare, and Vice President Mike Pence could vote on a nomination in the event of 50-50 tie.
Other Republican senators were quick to weigh in. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is up for reelection this year and is behind her Democratic challenger Mark Kelly in most polls, said Friday that “this U.S. Senate should vote on President Trump’s next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.”
The Senate was expected to recess later this month after passing a government funding bill, giving lawmakers a month in their home states to campaign for reelection.
The prospect of Ginsburg’s passing had already animated a fierce effort by lawmakers and Trump to fill a potential Supreme Court vacancy. Trump recently named a list of conservatives, including several sitting GOP senators, from which he intends to pick the next justice.
When Scalia died in February 2016, McConnell argued at the time that the choice should be left to voters given that Scalia’s death occurred in a presidential election year. But McConnell has emphasized that when the White House and Senate are controlled by the same political party, such restraints should not apply, and he has repeatedly signaled a willingness to move a Supreme Court nomination even in close proximity to the election.
Unlike other recent vacancies, though, a Republican nominee is likely to shift the Supreme Court sharply to the right. Trump’s previous two nominees, Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, are among the court’s more conservative members but replaced similarly conservative justices.
US election 2020: Trump and Biden feud over debate topics
US President Donald Trump and his White House challenger Joe Biden are feuding over plans for their final TV debate.
The Republican president’s campaign accused organisers of this week’s showdown of helping the Democrat by leaving out foreign policy as a topic.
The Biden camp shot back that Mr Trump was trying to avoid questions about his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Biden has a commanding lead nationally in opinion polls with two weeks to go until the election.
But he has a smaller lead in the handful of key US states that will ultimately decide the outcome.
What did the Trump campaign say?
On Monday, the president’s camp sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates calling for topics to be adjusted for the final primetime duel this Thursday.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in the letter that the campaigns had already agreed foreign policy would be the focus of the third debate.
The topics were announced by moderator and NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker last week: American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.
During a campaign rally on Monday afternoon in Prescott, Arizona, Mr Trump described Ms Welker as a “radical Democrat” and said she would be “no good”.
Mr Stepien accused Mr Biden of being “desperate to avoid conversations about his own foreign policy record” and the commission of trying to “insulate Biden from his own history”.
“The Commission’s pro-Biden antics have turned the entire debate season into a fiasco and it is little wonder why the public has lost faith in its objectivity,” he wrote.
He also accused Mr Biden of trying to avoid questions over reports about purported emails from his son, Hunter, and alleged conflicts of interest.
How did the Biden campaign respond?
The Democrat’s camp hit back that it was actually Mr Trump who was trying to duck questions.
“The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics,” said national press secretary TJ Ducklo.
“The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response.
“As usual, the president is more concerned with the rules of a debate than he is getting a nation in crisis the help it needs.”
What are the debate rules?
Following public criticism over the handling of the first debate, the commission has adopted a new rule to mute microphones in the final event.
The 90-minute debate structure will be divided into 15-minute segments. At the start of each new topic, both candidates will have two minutes of uninterrupted time – during which the opponent’s microphone will be off.
The rest of the time will be open discussion – and the microphones will not be muted during this period.
In a statement announcing the decision, the debate commission said they determined it was “appropriate to adopt measures intended to promote adherence to agreed upon rules”.
The commission noted that “one [campaign] may think they go too far, and one may think they do not go far enough”, but that these actions provided the right balance in the interests of the public.
What happened with the last two debates?
The Trump campaign chief noted on Monday that the moderator of the cancelled second debate on 15 October, Steve Scully, had been suspended after tweeting to a prominent Trump critic, then lying that his account had been hacked.
Mr Stepien also accused the moderator of the first debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, of having acted as “a third combatant” against Mr Trump.
The first Trump-Biden duel back on 29 September descended into insults between the candidates, with the president interrupting many more times than the Democrat did, according to post-debate statistics from US media outlets.
How is early voting going?
Nearly 30 million early voters have already cast their ballots, compared with just six million at this point before the last presidential election in 2016.
Experts say the coronavirus pandemic has spurred many to cast their ballot ahead of time to avoid crowding at polling stations on 3 November, though some early voters have faced long queues.
On Monday, Republicans were dealt a defeat by the US Supreme Court as it declined to take up a case on postal ballots in the critical swing-voting state of Pennsylvania.
Republicans had argued only ballots received by election day should be counted, and were contesting a state Supreme Court decision to allow late ballots to count.
Now that America’s highest court has refused to hear the case, any ballots received within three days of 3 November will be counted, even if they do not have a clear postmark.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s three liberal justices in the case.
Trump announces plans to remove Sudan from state sponsors of terrorism list
“GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!” he tweeted.
Trump’s announcement comes months after the US and Sudan reached a bilateral settlement agreement. The tweet was welcome news for Sudanese officials as well as some of the American survivors and families of the victims of those bombings, who have urged Congress to pass legislation so that it can be disbursed. However, others remain opposed to the settlement, which pays lesser amounts to foreign nationals who worked at the embassy and employees who became US citizens after the attack.
Behind the scenes, the Trump administration has been pushing for the transitional government in Sudan, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, to normalize relations with Israel. Such a move would present a foreign policy win to Trump just weeks ahead of the election.
The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a team of international negotiators from the White House and State Department had taken the lead on brokering these deals between Israel and a number of countries, including Sudan, Oman and Morocco, according to people familiar with the discussions, and their efforts have thus far yielded two successful deals — with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
Senior government sources in Sudan told CNN that the designation change was a requirement by Hamdok before talks on normalization could proceed.
“Prime Minister Hamdok was insistent during negotiations with the US that the removal from the list not be linked to normalization as Sudan has met all the criteria for its removal. Now that the designation has been changed discussions can begin afresh on normalization. The designation change was our priority and normalization is theirs,” one source said.
‘A critical step in advancing the US-Sudan relationship’
With the nation under a transitional government, Pompeo has voiced support for delisting Sudan with certain prerequisites.
“This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often. We all know the history of Sudan and the tragedy there,” Pompeo said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in late July. “There’s a chance not only for a democracy to begun to be built out, but perhaps regional opportunities that could flow from that as well. I think lifting the state sponsor of terrorism designation there, if we can take care of the victims of those tragedies, would be a good thing for American foreign policy.”
The State Department declined to comment on Trump’s announcement Monday, although the top US diplomat in Khartoum congratulated the Sudanese government and its people on the news.
“This Tweet and that notification are the strongest support to Sudan’s transition to democracy and to the Sudanese people,” he said. “As we’re about to get rid of the heaviest legacy of Sudan’s previous, defunct regime, I should reiterate that we are peace-loving people and have never supported terrorism.”
The role of Congress
Three congressional aides told CNN that the administration had yet to notify Congress of the delisting. The notification triggers a 45-day period in which Congress could override the decision, but it would require both the House and Senate to pass a veto-proof joint resolution of disapproval.
Edith Bartley, spokesperson for some the families of Americans who were killed in the embassy bombings, said in a statement Monday that they welcomed the announcement.
“On behalf of the families killed in the 1998 bombing of the Nairobi embassy, I wish to express our appreciation for the long hard work of the State Department, and the new civilian regime in Sudan, to secure Sudan’s payment of compensation to our diplomatic families for that act of terror,” said Bartley, who herself lost her father and brother in the attack in Nairobi.
“The escrow fund established by that agreement, once it is released to the victims, will fulfill a longstanding commitment first made by President Bush, honored by President Obama, and now affirmed by President Trump, to condition normalization on compensating survivors and the families of those who were lost to acts of terror. In so doing, we vindicate the sacrifice of our diplomats abroad,” she said.
In her statement, Bartley also called for Congress “to immediately pass the legislation that is needed to implement the agreement, and begin the payment process. Congress cannot let this agreement fall victim to legislative gridlock and bickering.”
Stuart Newberger, an attorney at Crowell & Moring who represents US victims and their families, told CNN that Congress must pass the legislation because the agreement between Washington and Khartoum “requires that Sudan be basically relieved of being sued in federal court as a sponsor of terror under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.”
“So that’s why Congress has to get involved to provide Sudan what’s called ‘legal peace.’ The President can’t do that on his own; that’s something only Congress can do,” he said.
The settlement faces opposition from those who see it as unfair and inequitable — it would give different payouts to those embassy employees who were US citizens at the time of the attacks, those who have since become US citizens, and those who are still foreign nationals. Some 9/11 victims’ families are also opposed to the immunity that Sudan would receive under the deal, which they fear could jeopardize their own claims against the nation.
Doreen Oport, who worked at the embassy in Nairobi and was injured in the attack, said in a statement Monday, “We want a resolution but cannot accept one that betrays so many US embassy victims and the most basic principles of American justice.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Vivian Salama, Nima Elbagir and Yassir Abdullah contributed to this report.
Senate Republicans cringe at Trump’s stimulus negotiations
It is quite unusual for the Trump administration to negotiate legislation that turns off most members of Congress in President Donald Trump’s own party. If all Senate Democrats supported the legislation, it would still need more than a dozen Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.
And GOP leaders are looking dimly at the prospect of waltzing a bill with mostly Democratic support through the Senate, even if it does have the president’s backing.
Republicans’ “natural instinct, depending on how big it is, and what’s in it, is probably going to be to be against it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think we’re going to have a hard time finding 13 votes for anything.”
Senate Republicans have been on the attack now for weeks, hoping to send a signal to the Trump administration that they far prefer touting the impending Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett over a debilitating intra-party fight over a relief bill right before the election. McConnell has privately expressed concern about a coronavirus deal delaying Barrett’s confirmation, according to someone who has spoken to him.
Some GOP senators have also warned it would damper enthusiasm for Republicans at the ballot box, while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) simply said Monday that $1.8 trillion or more is “way too high.”
“It would divide Republicans if it’s anything like the kind of contours we hear about,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a fiscal conservative.
Trump has presented a cheery view of the possibility of getting sufficient Republican support. When asked last week during an NBC town hall whether Senate Republicans would go for a big number on a stimulus, Trump predicted: “they’ll go.”
And given the number of Republican senators in tough re-election races, it’s conceivable that some of them would support a massive spending deal.
“I’m glad they’re still talking. I think we do need a COVID-19 package. But it does depend on what’s in it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection.
Senate Republicans are far more enthusiastic about their more targeted, $500 billion legislation for schools, hospitals and small businesses that will see a vote this week. The party has unified around that proposal and had high hopes of hammering Senate Democrats if they opposed it.
But as long as Mnuchin and Pelosi are still talking about hundreds of billions in aid for states and cities and extending expired unemployment insurance coffers, there’s little reason for Democrats to feel any political pressure to take a lower number from McConnell.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called McConnell’s legislation this week a “partisan bill so full of poison pills that it is obvious he designed it to fail.” He said the most offensive portion is a broad corporate immunity shield amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A Pelosi-Mnuchin deal did not appear imminent Monday as the speaker ticked off many of the outstanding disputes during a private call with House Democrats. Pelosi said she and Mnuchin were still haggling over several key issues including appropriations for state and local aid and language covering liability and worker protections — a Republican demand which she described as “a big nut to crack.”
Pelosi has given Mnuchin until the end of Tuesday to reach an agreement — a timeline Democrats say is necessary if a bill is to be passed before the election. And she directed her committee chairmen to begin working with Republican ranking members to “reconcile differences” after another hour long call with Mnuchin on Monday afternoon.
But even the process of simply drafting the bill and haggling over all the particulars in the House and Senate appropriations committee will take days.
“I want this as soon as possible because I don’t want to carry over the droppings of this grotesque elephant into the next presidency,” Pelosi said on the call, according to two Democratic sources. “We’ve got to get something big and we’ve got it done soon and we’ve got to get it done right.”
A number of Republican senators were keeping their options open on Monday night as the chances for a deal, while low, were still alive. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who had panned ongoing discussions between Mnuchin and Pelosi for sending too much money to blue states, was among the senators taking a wait-and-see approach on Monday.
“If there’s an agreement, I think we should try and vote on it before the election,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “But I’m skeptical there can be an agreement.”
As majority leader, McConnell could decide simply not to hold a vote before the election, too. That would provoke a fight with Trump, but it might be the more popular position among Senate Republicans.
That’s because some of McConnell’s diehard conservative members are worried that if a roughly $2 trillion coronavirus bill does get a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, it would narrowly pass.
“You’ll lose a lot of Republicans on whatever that is,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who would oppose it. But he conceded: “If they bring it up for a vote, I’m guessing there will be enough to get it across the finish line.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
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