US senators were gearing up for a bitter fight over whether to confirm a new Supreme Court justice just weeks before a presidential election, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, said hours after Ginsburg’s death that he would hold a vote to confirm whoever President Donald Trump nominated, despite having blocked one of Barack Obama’s nominees in similar circumstances in 2016.
Mr McConnell’s decision focuses attention on a handful of Republican senators who have previously said they would not confirm a new Supreme Court justice in an election year. They are now the only potential hurdle to Mr Trump securing a third Supreme Court appointment should he choose to nominate someone before the election.
The Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and need a simple majority to secure a Supreme Court appointment — though the balance could change before the election if Mark Kelly beats the incumbent Republican Martha McSally in the Arizona Senate race. Mike Pence, the vice-president, would vote to break the deadlock in the event of a tie.
In a statement just hours after Ginsburg’s death, Mr McConnell said: “Americans re-elected our [Senate] majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary. Once again, we will keep our promise.
“President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”
Ginsburg’s death prompted tributes from around the world for a jurist renowned for her work to advance equal rights for women. She died at home aged 87 from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Mr Trump said in a statement: “Justice Ginsburg demonstrated that one can disagree without being disagreeable toward one’s colleagues or different points of view.”
The president has previously vowed to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that arises in election year, even though Senate Republicans blocked Mr Obama from doing so in 2016 because the election was nine months away.
Securing a third seat of his presidency — following the appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — would allow Mr Trump to tilt the balance of the court firmly in the direction of conservatives. Before Ginsburg’s death, there were five conservative and four liberal judges, though Mr Gorsuch has recently sided with his liberal colleagues on important decisions such as ruling that businesses could not discriminate against gay people.
Several Republicans have previously said they did not support confirming a new Supreme Court justice in an election year. They include Lindsey Graham, the Trump ally who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, which would lead the nomination process. Mr Graham said in 2018: “If an opening comes in the last year of President Trump’s term, and the primary process has started, we’ll wait to the next election.”
Other Republican senators who have previously made similar statements include Susan Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, Chuck Grassley, the former head of the Senate judiciary committee, and Lisa Murkowski. Ms Murkowski, the senator for Alaska, told an Alaska radio station just hours before Ginsburg’s death was announced that she would not confirm a Supreme Court nominee this year.
Democrats were also closely watching Mitt Romney, the one Republican senator who voted to convict Mr Trump at his impeachment trial.
By Saturday morning, none of those senators had said how they would vote, with Mr McConnell reportedly having asked Republican senators to keep their powder dry. Democrats were due to meet later to decide their approach.