By Scott Bauer
MADISON — Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said Wednesday that he thinks it’s “eminently reasonable” to have the next president and Senate decide who will serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, which puts him at odds with his Democratic opponent, Russ Feingold.
Johnson referred to the importance of naming a replacement to Justice Antonin Scalia in comments to Wisconsin business leaders at a chamber of commerce meeting, saying the upcoming election is “for all the marbles.” Scalia died earlier this month, leaving the court with a 4-4 ideological divide.
Johnson sides with all of his Republican Senate colleagues in wanting the appointment of Scalia’s replacement to fall to the next president, rather than President Barack Obama, who is in his last year in office. Democrats, including Feingold, say Obama has a constitutional responsibility to nominate a replacement and the Republican-led Senate should take it up this year.
Johnson opposes even holding a hearing on an Obama nominee, saying the decision should not be made eight months before an election.
“Why not let the American people decide the direction of the Supreme Court?” Johnson told reporters. “We may win that one, we may lose that one, but let the American people decide. I think it’s an eminently reasonable position to take.”
Johnson said it was preferable to have the next president and Senate deal with the nomination, rather than “a lame duck president and quite honestly, potentially a lame duck Republican Senate.”
Democrats note that in 1988, a Democratic-led Senate confirmed Anthony Kennedy to the court, though he’d been nominated by President Ronald Reagan the preceding year. Republicans point out it’s been nearly eight decades since a nomination occurred and was filled in the same election year.
Johnson said he feared that President Obama would nominate a “super legislator who would tip the balance of the court and put at risk our Second Amendment gun rights, our First Amendment freedom of speech rights.”
Also, Johnson said he would only support a nominee who is a judge “who shows fidelity to the Constitution and the text of the law.”
Feingold spokesman Michael Tyler said in a statement that voters expect Johnson to “uphold his constitutional responsibility” and act on a nomination this year.
“Sen. Johnson needs to do his job, not promise to obstruct a nominee that hasn’t even been named yet,” Tyler said.
What to do about Scalia’s seat has become a dominant issue in hot Senate races across the country as Democrats need to gain four seats to take majority control away from Republicans. Wisconsin is one of five states along with New Hampshire, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania where the GOP faces a tough challenge. Obama won all of those states twice.
Johnson didn’t talk about his race with Feingold at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s annual “business day” meeting that drew about 900 people. But he did recall his rise out of the tea party movement six years ago to launch his first run for office against Feingold, who had been in office for 18 years. Johnson said he ran then because he was panicked about the country’s future, and he’s “more panicked” now.
He dodged a question about whether it would help or hurt his re-election effort if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee.
“I’m not a political pundit,” he said. “I’m a manufacturer from Oshkosh. I’m a citizen legislator.”
Johnson, who has not endorsed anyone in the presidential race, said he would support whoever is the nominee.