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Obama's Will To Fill Justice Seat Widens Rift With McConnell


I'm Renee Montagne in Washington, D.C., where President Obama's preparing to announce his pick to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. That formal nomination could come as early as this week. And Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell is promising to sit on it. He argues that the choice should be left to the next president. The showdown is the latest twist in a long-running political poker game. NPR's Ailsa Chang and Scott Horsley bring us the view now from opposite sides of the table on the combative history of Obama and McConnell and the rare occasions when they've managed to cooperate.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In tussling over the Supreme Court vacancy, President Obama and Senator McConnell are both playing the hands they were dealt under the rules of the Constitution. But this has never been a friendly card game. As Obama told the White House Correspondents' dinner in 2013, schmoozing with the GOP Senate leader is not his idea of a good time.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell, they ask... Really?


OBAMA: Why don't you get a drink with Mitch McConnell?


HORSLEY: Obama's biggest legislative achievements, like the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform, were passed over the objections of McConnell and his party.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Because at that point, it was like Obama held all the cards. One of McConnell's closest aides, Rohit Kumar, says his boss and Obama hardly ever spoke.

ROHIT KUMAR: Remember, for the first two years of the president's term he had really little or no need to speak to Republicans. He had a majority in the House and 60 votes in the Senate.

CHANG: But the 2010 midterm election changed all that. Republicans captured the House and snatched enough seats in the Senate to block any Democratic bills they wanted to. With the deck no longer stacked in Obama's favor, McConnell made this famous pledge.


MITCH MCCONNELL: Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.

HORSLEY: The only surprise to the White House was how brazen McConnell was in putting his cards on the table. The administration had felt for years that Republicans had no interest in working with the president. And yet shortly after that election, they did find common ground.


OBAMA: I just want to say a few words about the agreement we've reached on tax cuts.

HORSLEY: In late 2010, the president struck a deal with Republicans, temporarily extending Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy in exchange for breaks to help the poor and middle class. Liberals weren't happy, but Obama insisted it was worth the compromise.

BILL BURTON: That Christmas, we all boarded Air Force One to go to Hawaii.

HORSLEY: Bill Burton is a former White House spokesman.

BURTON: The president was in such a good mood, he was literally walking around the plane humming "Mele Kalikimaka."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright...

BURTON: (Laughter) On the airplane because he felt like so much had gotten done in the final days.

CHANG: Pragmatism outweighed partisanship again when McConnell and Obama worked together to avoid a debt default and the fiscal cliff. McConnell's aide, Kumar, says the two men had one very important thing in common.

KUMAR: Neither, at the end of the day, wanted to be the one to preside over some sort of economic calamity.

CHANG: McConnell told CNN for all their battles, he and Obama were now stuck together, uneasy players at the same political poker table.


MCCONNELL: I'd hoped to make him a one-term president. And he had hoped to defeat me last fall. I think what the American people are saying is they want us both to still be here. They want us to look for things to agree on and see if we can make some progress for the country.

HORSLEY: Last year they made progress on a long-term highway bill, an education overhaul and a budget agreement. Then came the wildcard no one was expecting.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died.

HORSLEY: For Obama, the sudden vacancy offers a chance to shift the direction of the high court that's generally been moving to the right for decades.

CHANG: But within hours of Scalia's death, McConnell vowed the vacancy would not be filled while Obama's in the White House. Kumar says this isn't just another fight that can be settled by splitting the difference.

KUMAR: The Supreme Court justices are not like tax bills, right? There's not a negotiated solution where you get 50 percent of a Democratic nominee and 50 percent of a Republican nominee, and you put them together. I mean, these are actual human beings. They're people.

HORSLEY: But if McConnell is upping the ante by blocking the nomination, Obama is not about to fold. He and his fellow Democrats hope to make this an election-year issue for vulnerable Senate Republicans.

CHANG: And however this final hand plays out, it will be one to remember if the president and Senate leader ever do get that drink.


OBAMA: I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell.

HORSLEY: I'm Scott Horsley at the White House.

CHANG: And I'm Ailsa Chang at the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.