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Senate GOP puts politics over duty in refusing to even meet a court nominee

It’s not how government is supposed to work, but that’s how it has been almost from the start of President Obama’s first term in office. The president proposes, the Congress opposes.

It’s happening again, and over an issue no less critical to the nation than naming a U.S. Supreme Court justice to succeed the late Antonin Scalia.

The latest development, after some apparent confusion within Senate Republican ranks, is that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in effect said: “Not nobody, not no how.” (Apologies to Frank Morgan.)

Senate Republicans, at least some of whose votes would be needed to approve any nominee, will not only not vote on any nominee that Obama sends them, he said, but won’t conduct any hearings. Won’t even shake his – or her – hand. That’s not just election-year politics, which Democrats have also played, but a continuation of the obstructionism that has hamstrung the federal government for almost eight years.

Still, for today, that’s the situation. Obama is constitutionally mandated to send a nominee to the Senate, regardless of McConnell’s grandstanding. That’s what Obama needs to do. If McConnell and his colleagues don’t want to fulfill their constitutional obligation, that’s up to them, but they – not Obama – will be the ones playing electoral chess with the Constitution.

Of course, what a politician says today may not be true tomorrow. If Obama nominates a justice whom the Republican Senate has previously confirmed for a lower court, its members would be hard-pressed not to take that person seriously. And if that nominee is a woman or minority, the politics of snubbing such a candidate could be fearsome in an election year.

McConnell’s risk-reward calculation may change as the year progresses. What may seem to make political sense during the primary season may be radically different during the general election campaign, when candidates who were playing to their party bases suddenly tack back toward the political center, where elections are typically decided.

That’s politics, and it’s a fact of life. Congress and the presidency are political as well as governmental institutions, after all. But the good of the country also needs to play into this clumsy minuet. That’s why these people were elected and, constitutionally, the Supreme Court is a co-equal branch of government. Responsibility calls.