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David Sirota: Democrats Have Power To Play Hardball, Too

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the coming days, the nation will continue to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death at the age of 87 was announced Friday night. But the fierce political battle over who should fill her now-vacant seat has already begun, so that is where we're going to start today. President Trump has already said he will nominate someone, most likely a woman, to replace Ginsburg. And he says he wants to do that in the coming week.

The Senate Republican leadership is pushing for a vote on his pick before the November election. Democrats strongly object to that timeline, recalling how the Republicans refused even to hold a hearing on President Obama's nominee to the court, Judge Merrick Garland, back in 2016, let alone schedule a vote, even though that was months before the election and not just a few weeks. And today, they got some support from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, now the second Republican senator after Maine's Susan Collins to oppose taking up a Supreme Court nomination so close to the election.

In a moment, we'll hear more on the White House strategy to push through a nomination. But hardball tactics aren't just available to the Republicans. For more on what options might be available on the Democratic side, we called David Sirota, who wrote about this the other day for his political newsletter, TMI. He's a former campaign speechwriter for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and he's with us now.

David Sirota, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

DAVID SIROTA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Well, the Republicans control the Senate, and in theory, they have the votes to push through a vote on President Trump's pick to replace Justice Ginsburg, assuming they can keep enough Republican senators from reaching a majority. So realistically, what can Democrats in the Senate do to stop them - because shame obviously isn't working?

SIROTA: Well, the Democrats have a lot of options in terms of grinding the Senate business to a halt as a whole. The Senate runs on a system of unanimous consent, which means that each senator says the normal, regular business of the day can happen. And each senator could object to that. They can demand the enforcement of rules about committee hearings. I mean, there is no filibuster on judges anymore, but there are still parliamentary procedures to slow things down.

And here's the point - is that if Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, was in the role reversal, I think we all know that he would be using those tactics to stop a Democratic president from putting forward a Supreme Court judge.

So the bottom line here is that the Democrats have some power to really try to stop this nomination. Simply rolling over and not using that power, I think, is completely insane. And I think using that power will make the case effectively that in a next Congress, it is worthwhile to consider expanding the court. In other words, if the Republicans get their way, and they ram through a nominee, the Democrats having a fight, a real fight, right now makes the political case for expanding the court in a new Congress.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, that is the argument that a number of Democrats made in 2016. I mean, their argument is that the Republicans have succeeded in making the Supreme Court a voting issue in a way that the Democrats have not. You know, to that end, in a piece in your newsletter, TMI, this week, you wrote that the hardball needs to be directed to the top Democrat in the Senate, minority leader Chuck Schumer, as well.

You say - and I quote - he needs to be subjected to maximum pressure to force him to use all the tools at his disposal in order to stop a vote on a Trump Supreme Court nominee from happening this year - including, you say, a primary challenger needs to be announced right now who will say that this is a referendum on Chuck Schumer's ability to stop this. Why do you say that? I mean, doesn't Schumer already want to do that?

SIROTA: Well, Schumer has cut deals with the Republicans to move forward Trump judges. There was a very controversial deal that he cut to fast-track a group of Trump judges. So Chuck Schumer has clearly not been serious or as serious as he could be in stopping Trump from packing the entire judiciary.

And I believe that a primary challenge to Chuck Schumer will force him to use the power that he has, that he knows he has, that he as Senate majority leader - he is there in order to use. It would force him, or at least put pressure on him, to use all the tools at his disposal. He's been there a long time. He knows the game of the Senate. And if he is not going to use that power, then he needs to face pressure at home.

MARTIN: You know, one of the top nominees - potential nominees near the top of President Trump's list, so we are hearing, is Amy Coney Barrett. She's a federal appeals judge. A number of reports say that she's kind of the frontrunner. And there are indications that if she is the nominee, the White House would frame any opposition to her as anti-religious or anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. I mean, she happens to be Catholic. A former White House lawyer actually told NPR as much. How do you think the Democrats could respond to that scenario?

SIROTA: Well, I think they need to make the case that Joe Biden is starting to make, which I think is a powerful case. For instance, when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, Biden has started to say that the Supreme Court fight could essentially end some of the key provisions in the Affordable Care Act. I think that's a powerful argument.

So my point is only that I think that Democrats would need to focus on how exactly this appointment could shift things that matter to people in the country. In other words, this is not just a political fight between the parties. This has real-world ramifications for millions and millions of people.

MARTIN: That was the writer and journalist David Sirota. He's a former campaign speechwriter for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. He's currently an editor-at-large of Jacobin and a columnist for The Guardian.

David Sirota, thanks so much for talking to us.

SIROTA: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.