Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday will point to his years as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman to cast Republicans' election-year Supreme Court blockade as a dangerous new escalation of partisanship — hoping to put the focus on his record on high-court nominations and not his much-discussed remarks.
In a speech at Georgetown Law School, Biden will note that as chairman and ranking Democrat on the committee he helped usher eight Supreme Court nominees through the committee. All of those nominees got a hearing and a vote on the Senate floor, Biden says, according to excerpts of the speech released in advance.
"Not much of the time. Not most of the time. Every single time," he says.
The high-profile speech is Biden's latest attempt to explain and move past the 1992 remarks that have recently come back to haunt him and his boss, President Barack Obama.
In the Senate floor speech, then-committee Chairman Biden seemed to endorse the notion of blocking any Supreme Court nominee put forward in the throes of the election season, a version of the strategy now thwarting Obama nominee Merrick Garland.
Republicans have branded their election-year blockade the "Biden rule" and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has used Biden's comments to suggest the strategy is a standard Senate practice. Biden, meanwhile, has defended the remarks by saying Republicans are distorting his meaning.
The White House said Biden's Thursday speech to law professors and students is an attempt to go on offense. Biden plans to warn of the danger of allowing the diminished court to deadlock on major issues, kicking cases back to regional lower court and threatening to "fragment our national unity."
"The longer this high court vacancy remains unfilled, the more serious a problem we will face — a problem compounded by turbulence, confusion, and uncertainty about our safety and security, our liberty and privacy, the future of our children and grandchildren," Biden will say, according to excerpts.
It is not surprising that Biden is eager to weigh in. After more than 15 years on the Judiciary Committee, eight as chairman, few in Washington can match the vice president's experience with judicial nominations. Facing perhaps the last big political fight of his career, it's unlikely he'd let his past remarks keep him from a debate he has spent his career preparing for.
Biden, who has acted as a stealthy liaison to the Senate in past negotiations, has begun some of that work. He has reached out to some Republican senators since Obama nominated Garland, chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, for the high court. 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.
But Republicans won't make it easy.
As Democrats pound GOP senators to "do their jobs," the argument that their blockade is part of a long history of partisan maneuvering on confirmations has particular resonance with the base — the voters most adamantly behind the GOP plan.
Biden's June 1992 speech lends needed ammunition.
Amid talk that a sitting justice might retire, then-Sen. Biden warned President George H.W. Bush to hold off on a nomination. Supreme Court confirmations had become "dominated by the right" and hearings the summer before a presidential election would only lead to a "conflagration," he said.
"Senate consideration of a nominee under these circumstances is not fair to the president, to the nominee, or to the Senate itself," Biden argued.
If Bush went ahead with a nomination, "the Senate Judiciary Committee should seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over," he said.
The vice president has focused on another part of his 1992 remarks. Biden went on to say he hoped to usher in changes to the confirmation process in the next administration and would consider a moderate nominee.
"If the president consults and cooperates with the Senate or moderates his selections absent consultation, then his nominees may enjoy my support," he said.