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GOP senators fuel Justice Kennedy retirement talk

Issued: 2018-03-26

Senate Republicans are privately saying they hope Justice Kennedy announces his retirement in the coming months, before the fall midterm elections, arguing the move would give Republicans something to rally their base as they work to maintain control of the Senate.

While Kennedy, 81, has not directly signaled his plans for retirement, at least one senator has predicted it could come over the summer. Others maintain that confirming a conservative successor to Kennedy, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1988, would be easier while Republicans control the Senate.

Some GOP lawmakers argue that Kennedy should feel comfortable with President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCaskill: Clinton should be more careful in how she describes Trump voters Stormy Daniels lawyer slams critics who say there was 'nothing new' in '60 Minutes' interview Costello won't seek reelection in Pennsylvania MORE’s judgment after he tapped Neil Gorsuch, one of his former clerks, to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The vacancy following Scalia's death in early 2016 became a key rallying call for conservatives in elections later that year.

“He’s a Republican, his wife’s a Republican, his kids are Republican. You’d think he want his successor to be appointed by a Republican president,” said one GOP senator who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

The lawmaker said a rumor had circulated months ago that Kennedy wasn’t hiring new clerks, raising chatter in the Senate that he would step down this summer. But speculation about an imminent departure has apparently died down some in recent weeks.

Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, did not respond to a query about Kennedy’s political affiliation or about the status of future clerks.

The GOP senator said that it would help Republicans keep control of the Senate if Kennedy announced his retirement, reminding voters of the Senate’s importance in shaping the courts.

“The only reason we won the White House and kept the Senate was because of that open Supreme Court seat,” the lawmaker added, referring to the vacancy following Scalia's death.

Scalia died in February 2016, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse members demand Senate confirm Jim Bridenstine as NASA chief You just can't keep good health policy down Trump threatens to veto omnibus over lack of wall funding, DACA fix MORE (R-Ky.) kept the seat vacant until after President Obama left office nearly a year later. That decision left Obama's nominee, Merrick GarlandMerrick Brian GarlandTrump presses GOP to change Senate rules Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be a hero, but not to DC After shutdown surrender, why should progressives ever trust Chuck Schumer again? MORE, in limbo for months.

Many conservatives said they put aside their reservations about Trump and voted for him because they felt confident he would pick a conservative justice to replace Scalia. For his part, Trump sought to reassure conservatives throughout his 2016 campaign that he would pick a nominee in the mold of Scalia, including releasing a list of potential nominees.

Now, Republicans are privately wondering if there could be another Supreme Court vacancy in a major election year where Democrats are viewed as enjoying stronger enthusiasm.

Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerRepublican drops Senate primary challenge to Heller after Trump's urging Three states where Dems can pick up Senate seats GOP senator: Justice Kennedy is going to retire this summer MORE (Nev.), the chamber’s most vulnerable Republican incumbent, told an audience in Las Vegas earlier this month that he expected Kennedy to retire “around sometime early summer.”

He expressed hope that it would “get our base a little motivated because right now they’re not very motivated,” according to an audio recording of the event first reported by Politico.

A separate GOP senator told The Hill that confirming another conservative justice to the court would give Senate Republican candidates another solid accomplishment to run on in the midterms.

“It would be helpful if he made this the cap of his career,” the lawmaker said of Kennedy. “It would be very helpful to appoint another Neil Gorsuch on the court for the next decade.”

A CNN/SSRS poll of registered voters nationwide last month found that Democrats are generally more enthusiastic about voting in midterm races. It found that 51 percent of the Democratic base described themselves as extremely or very enthusiastic about voting while 41 percent of Republicans described themselves that way.

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