President Donald Trump has vowed to push ahead with a Supreme Court nomination “without delay” following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night.
The US president tweeted on Saturday that he considered it an “obligation” to put forward a nominee, who if confirmed would tilt the balance of the court decisively towards the conservatives.
Mr Trump tweeted: “We [Republicans] were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices. We have this obligation, without delay!”
His tweet came hours after Ginsburg died, aged 87, of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. Ginsburg was renowned for her long and successful legal career during which she championed equality for women.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, has already said he would hold a vote to confirm whoever Mr Trump nominated, despite having blocked one of Barack Obama’s nominees in similar circumstances in 2016.
Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate judiciary committee, which would lead the hearing process for any nominee, also signalled on Saturday he was likely to back a vote. Mr Graham has previously argued against appointing a Supreme Court justice in an election year. But on Saturday he drew attention to comments he made earlier this year saying it was different on this occasion because the Senate is controlled by the same party as the president.
The comments by Mr Graham and Mr McConnell leave just a few Republican senators, who have also previously argued against appointing new justices in an election year, as the only remaining potential hurdle to another Trump appointment.
The Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and need a simple majority to secure a Supreme Court appointment. 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 . . . President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”
The president has previously vowed to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that arises in an 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.
Filling the Court’s vacant seat ahead of the US election could have a generational impact on US politics and society. Conservatives have made it a priority to overturn Roe v Wade — the law that made abortion legal across the US, and one of the most divisive decisions in US court history.
The Court could also play a critical role in adjudicating the result of a disputed election between Mr Trump and Mr Biden in November, as well as several key policy decisions.
The Court is expected to rule shortly on the future of the Affordable Care Act — Barack Obama’s trademark healthcare programme — which Republicans have vowed to overhaul, and will also play a decisive role on immigration, voting rights and the role of money in politics.
Several Republicans have previously said they did not support confirming a new Supreme Court justice in an election year.
They 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.
Democrats are already considering what they might do should they win control of the Senate after this year’s election.
Democratic senators met on Saturday afternoon, during which Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, told them: “Let me be clear: if Leader McConnell and Senate Republicans move forward with this, then nothing is off the table for next year. Nothing is off the table.”
Ed Markey, the Democratic senator for Massachusetts, has made this threat more explicit, talking about ending the right of Senators to filibuster and expanding the number of justices on the Supreme Court.
The idea of “packing the court” has been mooted since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, but has usually been dismissed by moderate Democrats as unfeasible or politically dangerous.
Additional reporting by Courtney Weaver in Washington