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McConnell now says he’d hold SCOTUS hearings in an election year — in a reversal of 2016

The Senate majority leader admits the “Biden rule” was always a bunch of nonsense.

Lawmakers Hold Their Weekly Policy Luncheons
McConnell speaks at the Capitol earlier this month.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell now says he’d fill a Supreme Court seat in 2020 if one opens before the next presidential election — a revelation that indicates his refusal to confirm President Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016 was all about partisanship, not principle.

In 2016, McConnell said his refusal to even hold a hearing for Merrick Garland was rooted in the “Biden rule.” That rule resulted from an overinterpretation of remarks then-Sen. Joe Biden made on the Senate floor in June 1992, in the wake of the contentious Clarence Thomas hearings, about how he thought it would be best for the Senate to hold off on additional SCOTUS confirmation hearings until after that year’s presidential election.

“The Senate will continue to observe the ‘Biden rule’ so that the American people have a voice in this momentous decision” on who to name to the court, McConnell said on the Senate floor three years ago.

If a Supreme Court seat opened early next year, one would think the “Biden rule” would again be in effect. But during a Chamber of Commerce event in Paducah, Kentucky, on Tuesday, McConnell said it won’t.

“Should a Supreme Court justice die next year, what will your position be on filling that spot?” an attendee asked.

“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell replied with a smile.

Wednesday’s edition of Morning Joe put together a montage contrasting what McConnell said about Garland in 2016 with what he said about a third hypothetical Trump SCOTUS nominee on Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer slammed McConnell’s comments, tweeting that “[a]nyone who believed he’d ever allow confirmation of a Dem President’s President’s nominee for SCOTUS is fooling themselves.”

McConnell’s spokesperson told CNN the difference between 2016 and 2020 is that now the Senate and White House are both controlled by the same party — an explanation the majority leader hinted at during an appearance on Face the Nation last October, when he claimed there was a long tradition of Republican Senates not confirming SCOTUS nominees made by Democratic presidents.

“What I did was entirely consistent with what the history of the Senate has been in that situation, going back to 1880,” McConnell said.

But his reading of history is highly selective. As the New York Times details, Democratic Senates have repeatedly confirmed justices nominated by Republican presidents:

The last time a Republican-led Senate confirmed a nominee put forth by a Democratic president was 1895, when it confirmed Rufus W. Peckham after he was nominated by Grover Cleveland. Since then, Democratic-controlled Senates have approved 13 nominees by Republican presidents.

Before 2016, there had been just seven election-year confirmation battles since the beginning of the 20th century. In the most recent case, Anthony M. Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, was confirmed in 1988 by a Democratic Senate in a 97-to-0 vote after a grueling seven-month process.

In reality, McConnell’s operating principle now is the same as it ever was: partisanship.

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