President Obama is snubbing the funeral of US Supreme Justice Antonin Scalia, causing confusion among government officials at the White House and Congress.
“If we want to reduce partisanship, we can start by honoring great public servants who we disagree with,” Obama’s former “car czar” Steven Rattner tweeted after hearing about Obama skipping the funeral service.
Fox News host Sean Hannity blasted out his own site’s article that dismissed the decision as disappointingly expected: “Obama To SKIP Scalia Funeral, Here’s A List Of OTHER Funerals He Was Too Busy To Attend.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest revealed the president’s plans during the daily briefing, saying Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will go to the Supreme Court on Friday “to pay their respects to Justice Scalia” while the justice lies in repose in the Great Hall. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, who share Scalia’s Catholic faith, will be at the services instead.
Earnest refused to be drawn out about why the president would not attend the funeral, saying he didn’t know what the president plans to do on Saturday, and Scalia’s son, Eugene, did not immediately respond to a question about whether the family requested that Obama not attend the funeral.
“The president, obviously, believes it’s important for the institution of the presidency to pay his respects to somebody who dedicated three decades of his life to the institution of the Supreme Court,” Earnest said, adding that Friday marked an “important opportunity” to pay those respects.
In spite of the criticism, people close to the Scalia family said Obama was making the right choice. “I wouldn’t have expected President Obama to attend the funeral Mass, and I see no reason to fault him for not attending,” said Ed Whelan, a former Scalia clerk who now heads the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The ceremony at the Supreme Court seems the most apt opportunity for the president to pay his respects, but he obviously might have severe competing demands on his time.”
There’s not substantial historic precedent for presidents attending the funerals of sitting justices. President George W. Bush not only attended, but also eulogized Supreme Court chief justice and fellow conservative William Rehnquist in 2005. But before him, the last justice to die in office was Robert H. Jackson in 1954.
Still, the decision to forgo the funeral on Saturday was played up by some as a partisan snub.
Tim Miller, the communications director for Jeb Bush, simply tweeted “Same.” in response to a message from MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who said, “Some amazing advice my mom gave me once: ‘If you’re wondering whether you should go to the funeral, you should go to the funeral.”
The optics of paying his respects to Scalia are tricky for Obama, who would have been the subject of constant cutaways to his reactions and interactions with members of Congress during the funeral, distracting from memorials for the giant of American legal thought.
Obama so far has taken pains to show reverence for Scalia, even as he urged Republicans to keep an open mind about a replacement. In the immediate aftermath of Scalia’s death last weekend, Obama praised his wit and predicted that he would be remembered as one of the “most consequential judges and thinkers to serve.”
Confronted with a series of questions during a press conference on Tuesday about Republican plans to block a nominee, Obama was careful to again express gratitude for Scalia’s service before launching into a Constitutional lecture directed at the opposing party.
Scalia’s death ripped open a political seam that has suddenly consumed both the presidential race and the Senate, especially after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately issued a statement calling for Scalia’s replacement to be delayed until the next president is in office. Obama almost as quickly announced he would not be deterred, and pronounced his intent to nominate a fair-minded legal heavyweight to replace Scalia.
Former justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Wednesday appeared to back Obama’s decision to move forward with a nomination, telling a Fox affiliate, “We need somebody in there to do the job and just get on with it.”
So far, however, the president has not tipped his hand as far as top candidates, or even whether he will considering picking a moderate who could be palatable to the Republican-controlled Senate.
The White House said no nomination is expected this week while Congress is in recess, but there’s still been plenty of speculation and tea-leaf reading about both Obama’s and the Senate’s intentions.
On Tuesday, some Republicans signaled they’re open to at least holding hearings, if not also allowing a confirmation vote. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin in an interview with POLITICO bristled at the suggestion that his party would completely ignore a nomination, saying, “It’s amazing how many words are being put in everybody’s mouth.”
Also on Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, whose panel would evaluate any potential Obama pick, said he wouldn’t rule out holding hearings.
On Wednesday, Nevada GOP Sen. Dean Heller broke with his party’s strategy and called on Obama to put forward a consensus candidate. “The chances of approving a new nominee are slim, but Nevadans should have a voice in the process,” said Heller, a purple state senator, in the most direct rebuttal to McConnell’s plans to complete block a Supreme Court nominee.
But McConnell is still making hay of the Senate’s oppositional force, penning a letter on Wednesday afternoon for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm that told donors that their “support means everything at this pivotal moment in American history.”
“Senate Republicans have made a commitment to ensuring that the American people have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court Justice,” McConnell wrote. “Stand with Senate Republicans as we hold our ground in waiting to confirm a new justice until after 2016, the time by which the American people will have chosen a new president and a new direction for our country.”
At the press briefing on Wednesday, Earnest also tried to clarify Obama’s view on his own decision as a senator to filibuster against President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, in 2006. Earnest said Obama “regrets” the decision. But, he said, the situation was different.
“The president considered the qualifications and world view and credentials and record of the individual that President Bush put forward and then-Sen. Obama raised some objections,” Earnest said. “And what the president regrets is that Senate Democrats didn’t focus more on making an effective public case about those substantive suggestions.”
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