Labeling GOP as ‘obstructionist’ Democrats only recourse

Senate Republicans say they will refuse to have a hearing for President Obama’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. So Democrats on Wednesday took matters into their own hands: They held a hearing all by themselves.

A dozen members of the Senate minority assembled on the dais in an ornate hearing room in the Russell Senate Office Building. They used their official nameplates — “Ms. Klobuchar,” “Ms. Warren,” “Mr. Cardin” — and they had cardboard name cards for the witnesses, a quartet of law professors. They put out a “media advisory” and hung an official-looking sign at the door. They filled the public seats in the audience with staffers and other extras, distributed written testimony for the press and even had a C-SPAN crew on hand to film the proceedings.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, arriving late, made himself at home in one of the empty seats typically occupied by the majority party, prompting Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, the former comedian, to tattle to Madam Chairwoman. “I think Senator Blumenthal is sitting on the Republican side,” he reported.

Without actual Republicans, the hearing became an echo chamber, as lawmakers lobbed what Madam Chairwoman — Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — admitted were “softball” questions and witnesses gave emphatic concurrence.

“Are the Republicans violating the Constitution?” asked Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii.

“I would say they are violating the Constitution,” replied University of Chicago law professor Geoff Stone.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts piously reminded the audience that “for the rest of this year, President Obama is still president of the United States of America. Can I have an amen on that?”

An amen is about all she can have.

Alas for the Democrats, they don’t have the power to hold a real hearing. Klobuchar is in charge only of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, a party apparatus that doesn’t have real committee powers.

Klobuchar herself has been mentioned as one of the possible nominees for the Supreme Court vacancy. But given the way the eventual nominee is likely to be treated, the president might instead consider nominating Klobuchar’s Minnesota colleague Franken, who isn’t a lawyer but can appreciate farce.

Democrats have no authority to force the Republican majority to vote on Obama’s eventual nominee, or even to hold a hearing. But they think they can make Republicans pay a political price for their reflexive decision not to hold a hearing for an Obama nominee. GOP leaders said Wednesday they would stick to that position even if Obama were to nominate Brian Sandoval, the Republican governor of Nevada.

Polls indicate the GOP position — which goes well beyond the more defensible position of voting down Obama’s eventual nominee — both stirs up the Democratic base and offends independent voters. The incoming Democratic Senate leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, said Wednesday that “this is going to be the dominant issue for the remainder of the year, overshadowing anything that may happen on the Senate floor.”

To guarantee that, Democrats will launch all manner of stunts and theatrics.

On Wednesday, Democratic staffers and liberal activists assembled an impressive arsenal of props in a Capitol basement and called in reporters. There were six boxes containing, they said, printouts of 1.3 million electronic signatures of a petition demanding action on the Supreme Court vacancy. There were also nine posters telling Senate Republicans to “Do your job” and “Follow the Constitution,” along with four U.S. flags, four senators and eight earnest activists posing for photos with the props.

“A moment of silence for the trees,” requested liberal activist Adam Green as they posed with the massive printout.

There will, evidently, be little silence as Democrats try to make Republicans own the “obstructionist” label in November. “Senate Republicans are giving a middle finger to the American people and giving a middle finger to this president,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said at the news conference.

That was the unanimous view at the Democrats’ faux hearing Wednesday afternoon, where witnesses and senators alike talked about the “unconscionable” and “lawless” and “unprecedented” acts of the Republicans.

“It’s tyrannical,” declared Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. (There were no Republicans on hand to point out that Vice President Biden in 1992 took a position very similar to the current Republican stance.)

But what recourse do Democrats have other than shouting — and hoping for revenge in November?

Hirono put the question to one of the witnesses, Georgetown’s Peter Edelman: “What is the remedy?”

“Guantanamo,” he deadpanned.

It’s a thought.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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