Donald Trump has raced to cement a conservative majority on the US supreme court before the presidential election on 3 November, and Democrats’ hopes of keeping the seat empty have faded as two Republican senators signalled their support for moving quickly.
The president said on Monday he would name his third supreme court nominee on Friday or Saturday, following memorials for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal justice who died aged 87 on Friday.
Ginsburg will lie in state at the court on Wednesday and Thursday. Her coffin will rest on the Lincoln Catafalque, a platform built after the assassination of the 16th president in 1865 and loaned to the court by Congress. Ginsburg’s funeral will follow next week, at Arlington national cemetery.
“I think it will be on Friday or Saturday and we want to pay respect,” Trump told Fox News in a rambling interview by phone. “It looks like we will have services on Thursday or Friday, as I understand it, and I think we should, with all due respect for Justice Ginsburg, wait for services to be over.”
With the presidential election only 43 days away, an announcement on Friday or Saturday would narrow even that short window considerably.
Polling shows a majority of the public thinks the nomination should be made by the winner of the presidential election. Democrats also point to the precedent of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to grant a hearing to Barack Obama’s last nominee, Merrick Garland, in the eight months between the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016 and the election Trump won.
McConnell and Senate allies say the precedent they set then does not apply, as the Senate and the White House are held by the same party. There is no provision in the constitution on the subject. On the current court, the conservative Clarence Thomas was nominated by a Republican president and confirmed by a Democratic Senate.
A successful nomination would tilt the court 6-3 in favour of conservatives, potentially shaping American life for generations to come.
Two Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have said they do not support efforts to bring a nomination to a vote. That leaves McConnell with a 51-49 majority – enough to get the confirmation through. One more defection would produce a tie that would be broken by the vice-president, Mike Pence. Two more would sink the effort.
Democrats had hoped to get similar support from Cory Gardner, the senator for Colorado, who faces a tough re-election race in Colorado, and the Iowa senator, Chuck Grassley. But both men said on Monday they would vote to confirm a qualified Trump pick.
The Republican senator Mitt Romney, who has clashed with Trump and is seen by Democrats as a potential holdout, avoided questions about the supreme court seat on Monday.
“Before I have any comment, I’m going to meet with my colleagues, which I’ll be doing tomorrow,” Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, told reporters.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, told Fox News late on Monday: “We’ve got the votes to confirm Justice Ginsburg’s replacement before the election. We’re going to move forward in the committee. We’re going to report the nomination out of the committee to the floor of the United States Senate so we can vote before the election.”
Trump has promised to nominate a woman. Amy Coney Barrett of Indiana and Barbara Lagoa of Florida are reported to be frontrunners, Trump having reportedly said of Barrett: “I’m saving her for Ginsburg.”
Political considerations will naturally impinge on the selection. Barrett is a devout Catholic, leading to fears among pro-choice groups that her confirmation would imperil Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion legal.
Appearing on Fox & Friends, Trump praised both women but also said Lagoa was “excellent, she’s Hispanic. She’s a terrific woman from everything I know. I don’t know her. We love Florida and so she’s got a lot of things.”
Trump and Joe Biden are in a tight race in Florida, a key swing state. The Trump campaign has also been targeting Latino voters in Nevada and Arizona.
Ginsburg died on Friday of complications from pancreatic cancer at age 87.
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said any vote should take place next year. “That was Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish. And it may be the Senate’s only, last hope,” Schumer said.
Trump said without evidence that he did not believe the National Public Radio report that Ginsburg had told her granddaughter she did not want the Senate to consider a successor until next year, when either Trump will begin a second term or Democratic rival Joe Biden, who leads in opinion polls, will take office.
“It was just too convenient,” Trump said.
Reuters contributed to this report