STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There's a lot of meaning in the laughter that Senator Mitch McConnell drew last year. The Senate Republican leader spoke to an audience in Kentucky. And listen here to the audience reaction when he is asked what he would do if a Supreme Court vacancy opened during this election year. McConnell answers, we'd fill it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MITCH MCCONNELL: Oh, we'd fill it.
MCCONNELL: Yeah, you know, the reason I started with the judges is...
INSKEEP: The laughter comes as the audience realizes that Senator McConnell is planning to betray his own stated principle. In 2016, McConnell blocked President Obama's election year nominee saying, quote, "The American people should have a voice." After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, McConnell said there is no need to wait. He says this year is different because the president who fills the seat is from the same party as McConnell.
NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis are with us. Good morning to you both.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Mara, the next move belongs to the president. What's he doing?
LIASSON: He will be moving very quickly to announce a nominee. This is the third seat he has had to fill on the Supreme Court. Top adviser to the vice president said yesterday the president has already interviewed a lot of these possible nominees. They've already been vetted. And we're told that two of the names being seriously considered are Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa. And it will be a woman.
INSKEEP: OK, and how are the many Republicans, Sue, who did say there shouldn't be a vote in an election year responding now that there could be?
DAVIS: Well, they're mostly lining up behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There's only been two senators, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who said they do not support this process moving ahead before the election. But, you know, I think McConnell knows that the presidency's at stake, even his Senate majority is at stake, and he's going to want to move before the election if he can. And Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of his leadership team, told CBS "Face The Nation" yesterday that he believes that's possible.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
ROY BLUNT: This should take as long as it needs to take but no longer. There is plenty of time to get this done. But to get it done before Election Day, everything has to work, I think, pretty precisely.
DAVIS: Republican senators would like to see someone that would be quickly vetted and be able to move through and would note that those two judges that Mara mentioned have already been approved by the Senate, including having the support of Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins.
INSKEEP: What options, if any, do Democrats have, given the Republicans do have the majority and, if they stay together, they have the power?
DAVIS: Very little. You know, they could - there's minor delay tactics they can use. But this is really about the majority's power and the power that they can push before the election. So Democratic leaders are more saying, if we win the majority this November, there will be retribution. Progressives and Democratic activists are saying Democrats have to do everything possible. Here's Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking in New York yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: We all need to be more courageous, and we all must act in unprecedented ways to make sure that our rights are stabilized. And to Mitch McConnell, we need to tell him that he is playing with fire.
INSKEEP: OK, and people are talking about - including AOC, talking about different ways to tie up the Senate. But, meanwhile, there is this presidential campaign going on, which is one of the reasons this moment is so controversial. How is the president looking, if at all, to use this? Or what advantage could he gain from this nomination?
LIASSON: Well, he can gain several advantages. First of all, it's an opportunity to cement his place in history as the president who created a durable 6-3 conservative majority on the court for generations. It's also a chance to reset the presidential campaign, to make it about something other than COVID-19 and his leadership. Remember, he used the courts and his list of conservative potential nominees to pull together the conservative base in 2016.
At his rally over the weekend, supporters are already starting a new chant - fill that seat. Sounds a lot like build that wall. And it's a chance for him to remind Republican voters who held their noses and voted for him in 2016 why they did that - it's the judges, stupid. Although it's unclear how many Republicans who really care about the courts aren't already going to vote for Donald Trump.
INSKEEP: Are Democrats who traditionally have not been as motivated by the question of judges motivated now?
LIASSON: Yes, we're seeing signs that Democrats are motivated by this issue in ways they haven't been in the past. They've raised massive amounts of money since Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death - $20 million for Democratic Senate candidates. And Joe Biden spoke yesterday. He said the people should pick the person who picks the nominee. Here's what he said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: If Donald Trump wins the election, then the Senate should move on his selection and weigh the nominee he chooses fairly. But if I win this election, Presidents Trump's nominee should be withdrawn. As the new president, I should be the one who nominates Justice Ginsburg's successor.
LIASSON: So right now Biden is focusing on the process, the fairness - or what he says is the unfairness of the process - hoping this issue motivates Democrats. But as soon as tomorrow, if there is a living, breathing woman as a nominee, then what do Democrats do? Do they keep on focusing on the process? Or do they focus on the nominee? Do they attack her personally? Remember what happened in the Brett Kavanaugh nomination fight. It backfired on Democrats in many Senate races. So right now, Biden focusing on the process, but he has some difficult decisions to make as we go forward in this.
INSKEEP: Sue Davis, let me ask about pressures on institutions - not only the Supreme Court, but the Senate. What are the pressures at this moment?
DAVIS: You know, the Senate has never really recovered from the Merrick Garland moment. It really frayed relations on the committee between senators. And I think if Republicans are able to push this through before the election, it is going to not only sort of fracture the institution but the ability for there to be any kind of semblance of bipartisanship when it comes to the judiciary - excuse me.
And Democrats are talking about pushing forward even more radical extremes to our government. If they win the majority, they want to change the filibuster. They may try to change the makeup of the court. They may try to do things like extend statehood rights to places like D.C. and Puerto Rico to increase Democratic representation in the Senate. I mean, there will be repercussions from this action, and I think it is a very high-stakes moment in American politics.
INSKEEP: NPR's Mara Liasson and Susan Davis, thanks to you both.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.