AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tonight, President Trump will name his nominee to the Supreme Court. Senators on both sides have been gearing up since Election Day for the confirmation battle, which is expected to be intensely partisan. Last year, Senate Republicans refused to hold confirmation hearings for Judge Merrick Garland after President Obama nominated him to fill the vacancy. And Senate Democrats are still deeply resentful about that.
With us now to talk about the strategy on both sides is NPR's Congressional Correspondent Ailsa Chang. And Ailsa, first tell us how Republicans are basically making the case that Trump's nominee deserves more cooperation from the other side than what they offered last year.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, so Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the situation of Merrick Garland was totally different. He says, it's not the middle of an election year now. This is the beginning of a four-year term of a new president. And even though it was a contentious election year, the country has spoken, McConnell says, and therefore this new president has every right to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The example McConnell keeps going back to are the first terms of President Clinton and President Obama. Back then, Republicans did not block Clinton from getting Justices Breyer and Ginsburg confirmed to the court during his first term. And they didn't prevent Obama from naming Justices Sotomayor and Kagan to the court during his first term. So Republicans say, here we have another first-term president. It is only fair play to let Trump fill this vacancy.
CORNISH: So have Democrats figured out how they're going to respond?
CHANGE: Well, right now, there doesn't seem to be consensus on strategy. First of all, the nominee has not been named yet. And the vast majority of Democrats have held their fire because they don't want to appear obstructionist just for the sake of obstruction. There is one Democrat - Jeff Merkley of Oregon - who has already publicly declared he will oppose any nominee that is not Merrick Garland. But for the most part, Democrats want to stay away from this narrative that they're seeking retribution for Garland. They don't want this to be a story about retaliation.
Instead, they're going to frame it as, we are going to focus on the nominee's record and ideology. For Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic Leader, the go-to word is mainstream. He says he will fight tooth and nail any nominee that is not mainstream. Now, what does mainstream mean? Schumer hasn't specifically defined it. And when I pose that question to multiple Senate Democrats, the answer I get is, oh, mainstream is someone like Merrick Garland.
CORNISH: Now, I know you need 60 votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, but there are only 52 Republicans in the Senate. So they do need to peel off some Democrats, right?
CORNISH: I mean do Democrats have the power to fully block this nominee? And if not, what's kind of complicating things for them?
CHANGE: They do technically have the power to block Trump's nominee, but it's complicated. First, Schumer has the 2018 midterms to worry about. Several Democrats are up for re-election in states Trump decisively won. And Democrats don't want to get blamed in those states for a protracted war over this Supreme Court vacancy. So they're trying to be very careful about how they describe their path forward on this confirmation.
And there's also this thing called the nuclear option. It's a phrase you're going to be hearing a lot around here. Basically, the nuclear option is a parliamentary maneuver that McConnell could try to pull that would change the Senate rules so that it would take only 51 senators to confirm a Supreme Court nominee rather than 60.
CORNISH: And they call it the nuclear option in part because they'd be going to war with each other, right? I mean...
CORNISH: ...It's a big deal if Republicans do this.
CHANGE: It's a very big deal. But President Trump has already goaded McConnell. Last week, he said he wants - he thinks McConnell should change the Senate rules, that he should invoke the nuclear option. But McConnell has been very coy about what he will do. And it is ultimately up to him as a Senate majority leader.
McConnell's only said - and this has been his stock response every time he's asked, will you invoke the nuclear option. He's only said he's very confident that Trump will see his nominee confirmed to the Supreme Court. So he hasn't said he wouldn't go nuclear. Right now, it's just an option in his back pocket.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang. Thanks so much.
CHANGE: You're welcome.
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