Friday, February 10, 2017
Donnelly's Supreme Dilemma

Indiana proudly proclaims itself the Crossroads of America, a fun appellation that the Interstate highway system and history confirms is fitting. But it may be time to change the welcome signs at our borders to proclaim Indiana as the Crossroads of American politics.  It seems all things political now lead to the Hoosier State.


First, Donald Trump won the primary here in May of 2016, vanquishing his last credible opponent.  We know in retrospect - because of the Presidential election exit polling -- that win meant Trump was close to securing the Presidency of the United States.


Next, Trump selected our Governor, Mike Pence, as his running mate in July, just before the GOP Convention in Cleveland, thereby locking in their win.


Now comes the first truly titanic fight of the new Trump-Pence Administration and Indiana will be at the center of this battle to confirm a new US Supreme Court Justice. That's because Indiana US Sen. Joe Donnelly is among the handful of possible "persuadable" Democrats in the upper chamber. Sen. Donnelly will be an intense target of President Trump and Vice President Pence as they seek to fill the seat held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.


The stakes for Donnelly could not be higher.  He finds himself in the political cross hairs of the first major debate and struggle of the Trump-Pence Administration as he prepares his own  re-election bid for 2018. So Hoosiers will also have a front row seat and, potentially, again, an out-sized role in this political process.


These battles are intense.  Both as a US Senate staff member and the leader of a policy advocacy organization, I have played small roles in mobilizing public opinion and educating my fellow citizens on potential nominees over the years.  The Bork hearings were the worst (there is a reason "Bork" is now a verb in American politics) and the Thomas hearings the most unsettling.  The Souter confirmation was the most disappointing.


But this fight over the nomination of Federal Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch to the US Supreme Court may be the most intriguing.  That is because his confirmation in a closely divided Senate (the partisan split is 52 Republicans and effectively 48 Democrats) may require a change in Senate rules, the so-called nuclear option.


Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, changed the rules to benefit President Obama for Executive Branch appointments except Supreme Court nominees.  Now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, faces a tough call on changing Senate rules again to facilitate Gorsuch's elevation to the Supreme Court.


There will be much talk about the Senate's role and traditions in American public life, but this will come down to politics.  And that's why it will be so fascinating.


So here's my prediction, so I can eat political crow later.


Sen. Donnelly and a handful of other Senators facing tough re-election races in red states carried by President Trump and Vice President Pence will agree to forgo a filibuster, making many speeches about the need to preserve the Senate's consensus-making role and its (my view) faded status as the world's greatest deliberative body.  If correct, this means Donnelly would vote for cloture, which requires 60 votes, to shut off a filibuster and allow a confirmation vote.

Then Donnelly will vote against Gorsuch, per se, to try and have it both ways. He can say he did not block the Trump-Pence Administration but yet voted against this particular judge. Gorsuch would then win a simple majority vote and begin serving on the high court.


We'll see if this happens, and if so, if Hoosiers are fooled. Fascinating times, indeed.


Curt Smith is President of the Indiana Family Institute and the author of Deicide: How Eliminating the Deity is Destroying America.


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