In an appearance Tuesday in Paducah, Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told a questioner that if a Supreme Court justice died next year, creating a vacancy on the nine-member court, "Oh, we'd fill it."
McConnell's comments appeared to mark a reversal from his stance three years ago, during President Barack Obama's final year in office, when he orchestrated a blockade of Obama's choice of Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia . McConnell blocked hearings for Garland, a federal appeals court judge, saying that the choice should be left to voters in an election year.
McConnell's change of heart drew attacks from Democrats still smarting from his success in cementing the high court's conservative majority. The vacancy created by Scalia's death was filled by conservative Neil Gorsuch while swing vote Anthony Kennedy, who retired, was replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh after an acrimonious brawl last year.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said McConnell was a "hypocrite" and tweeted that his colleague "lives for GOP judges because he knows the GOP agenda is so radical & unpopular they can only achieve it in courts."
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the fifth-ranking House Democrat, called McConnell "a shameless individual" and accused him of "stealing a Supreme Court seat that Barack Obama had the right to present to the American people."
McConnell spokesman David Popp said McConnell was being consistent because he took care in 2016 to say that vacancies occurring when the White House and Senate are held by different parties should be held up. Republicans now control the Senate and White House.
"You'd have to go back to 1888 when Grover Cleveland was in the White House to find the last time a vacancy created in a presidential year was confirmed by the party opposite the occupant of the White House," McConnell said in March 2016, a month after Scalia died.
There is no announced vacancy and no justice has made moves indicating they're about to leave, but there's internet chatter that Justice Clarence Thomas, the current court's longest serving justice, would consider retirement if his seat could be filled by a Trump-named younger conservative. Thomas was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.
The Senate has approved more than 100 federal judges since Trump took office, including two Supreme Court justices and 41 appeals court judges. At the Paducah event, McConnell said confirming judges is the best way to have "a long-lasting positive impact on the country. That's the most important thing we've done in the country, which cannot be undone."