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Ginsburg death ignites fierce U.S. Senate battle - and stirs Scalia's ghost


By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death on Friday kicked off a monumental battle in Congress as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invited President Donald Trump to promptly nominate a replacement, ignoring pleas by Democrats to await the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

"President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," McConnell proclaimed on Friday night, without providing a time frame for action by the Senate.

That confirmed McConnell's prior insistence that he would do so in an election year, despite blocking President Barack Obama's efforts to nominate a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, 10 months before that year's presidential election.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer urged McConnell to await the results of the elections that are less than two months from now. He quoted McConnell's 2016 words on Twitter, saying "The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."

Trump is seeking a second four-year term and has been trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in public opinion polls.

The likely bitter fight ahead was reflected in early statements by Republican and Democratic senators taking partisan sides on whether a Ginsburg replacement should await the election results.

Even though Republicans caused a 14-month Supreme Court vacancy by their refusal to consider an Obama replacement for Scalia in 2016, Republican Senator Rick Scott said on Friday: "It would be irresponsible to allow an extended vacancy on the Supreme Court" this time, as he voiced support of Trump filling Ginsburg's seat.

Democrats reminded Republicans of that 2016 delay. And Democratic Senator Chris Coons said, "Given all the challenges facing our country, this is a moment when we should come together rather than having a rushed confirmation process further divide us."

The long-term direction of the nation's highest court is at stake. The closely divided court currently had five justices with conservative bents and four liberals.

If Trump were to choose a conservative judge to replace the liberal Ginsburg, as expected, the court's conservatives would have more heft with a 6-3 majority.

Democrats are trying to gain control of the White House and the Senate, which has the power to confirm the president's nominees for the Supreme Court.

Since becoming Senate majority leader in 2015, McConnell has focused much of his attention and wielded his power to fill the federal courts with conservative judges nominated by Trump. More than 200 have been installed.

One senior Senate Republican aide said of McConnell, "No way he lets a (Supreme Court) seat slip away." The aide added that a major question will be whether McConnell, in tandem with Trump, attempts to fill the vacancy before the Nov. 3 election or sometime before Jan. 20, when the next president will be sworn-in.

It can take several weeks to months between the president's nomination of a Supreme Court justice and a Senate confirmation vote as the nominee must go through a thorough vetting by the Senate and often makes visits with individual senators to build support for the nomination.

Then, lengthy confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee normally follow, culminating with a recommendation on whether the nominee should be confirmed and placed onto the court.

The last Supreme Court opening was filled in October 2018 by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. His confirmation faced strong opposition from Senate Democrats and included bitter hearings amid allegations, which he denied, of sexual misconduct decades earlier.

The Senate is controlled by 53 Republicans, while Democrats hold 45 seats. Two independents align with Democrats on most votes.

Among the 53 Republicans are some moderates, including Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. Collins is in a tough race for re-election this year in her home state of Maine, which has been trending Democratic.

Ginsburg's death could have an impact on Collins' re-election effort and her posture on whether filling the high-court seat should await the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Aurora Ellis and William Mallard)

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