WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday tried to clear his name and tout his record on Supreme Court nominations, calling Republican branding of his past remarks on the subject “ridiculous” and casting himself as a longtime advocate of bipartisan compromise in filling seats on the high court.
In a speech at Georgetown Law School, Biden issued a broad warning that Republicans’ election-year blockade of President Barack Obama’s nominee “can lead to a genuine Constitutional crisis” and he sought to distance himself from the strategy. He argued Republicans have distorted a 1992 speech in which he seemed to endorse the notion of blocking any Supreme Court nominee put forward in the throes of the election season.
Republicans have labeled their strategy the “Biden rule.”
Biden, a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said his broader point in the lengthy Senate floor speech was to call for more consultation with the Senate in choosing a nominee, a practice he said would lead to nominees with less extreme views. Obama “followed the path of moderation” in picking Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland, Biden said.
“There is no Biden rule. It doesn’t exist,” Biden told the group of professors and students. “There is only one rule I ever followed in the Judiciary Committee. That was the Constitution’s clear rule of advice and consent.”
Biden’s defense focuses on a later section on the speech, in which he called on then-President George H.W. Bush and future presidents to work more closely with the Senate to name moderate nominees. Earlier in the speech, Biden warned that if Bush were to name a nominee immediately, weeks before the summer political conventions, “the Senate Judiciary Committee should seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over.”
The remarks have proven problematic for Biden, a veteran of decades of Supreme Court battles. After more than 15 years on the Judiciary Committee, eight as chairman, few in Washington can match Biden’s experience with judicial nominations. Facing perhaps the last big political fight of his career, the vice president has appeared eager to dive into a familiar debate that has recurred throughout his career.
Biden, who has acted as a stealthy liaison to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in past negotiations, has begun some of that work. He has reached out to some Republican senators. And he’s pressed the issue as he’s campaigned for Democrats in Seattle and Ohio. His role is likely to increase as the process moves forward.
Republicans won’t make it easy. Immediately after Biden’s remarks Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement accusing Biden of hypocrisy.
“The vice president’s weak attempt to walk back his own standard on opposing election-year Supreme Court nominees just can’t be taken seriously,” Priebus said.
Biden hoped to turn the focus on his record, rather than his rhetoric, from that earlier, less contentious era.
During his time on the committee, every nominee got a hearing and a floor vote, Biden said. “Not much of the time. Not most of the time. Every, single, solitary time,” he said.
Biden’s retelling is accurate — Republicans are breaking from past practice in ignoring Obama’s choice. Still, Biden’s time on the judiciary panel is hardly viewed as a high water mark of comity in the court debates. The vice president’s leadership on the committee oversaw a notable escalation in the partisan battles over Supreme Court nominees.
In both his 1992 speech and on Thursday, Biden argued that consultation with the Senate was critical to the process.
He said he and Obama had studiously consulted with the Senate in picking Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of the Columbia, allowing the reality of divided government to shape the choice. He and Obama ultimately followed the “course of moderation,” Biden said. Garland, 63, is not a liberal giant in the mold of former Justice William Brennan, and Biden acknowledged that the choice of Garland had angered some in his party’s base.
“The president did not go out and find another Brennan. Merrick Garland, intellectually, is as capable as any justice, but he has a reputation for moderation. I think that’s a responsibility of the administration in a divided government,” Biden said. “Some of my liberal friends don’t agree with me, but I do.”
Associated Press reporter Kathleen Hennessey wrote this report.