By Mike Lillis - 02-25-16 06:00 AM EST
A growing number of House Democrats see hints of racism in the GOP’s effort to prevent President Obama from seating a new Supreme Court justice.
Democrats have long contended that the first black president has been the target of conservative attacks from which his white predecessors had been immune.
The evidence, they maintain, is found in things like the false charges that Obama is a Muslim, the unsubstantiated accusations that he was born in Kenya and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouting, “You lie!” during a 2009 address the president gave to Congress.
Now, many Democrats say, Obama’s race is playing a factor in the highly partisan fight to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the high court.
“For years, some conservatives in this country have painted the president as ‘different’ from ‘real’ Americans, using his race, his birthplace or other themes. They have pretended to have policy differences, but for many, their true motives come from racism, fear and sometimes hatred,” said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), former head of the Asian Pacific American Caucus.
“Now, even as they try to cover themselves with false logic, these same voices use the pretext of a Supreme Court nomination to say that President Obama isn’t a ‘real’ president, that he doesn’t have the same powers and responsibilities as white presidents before him.”
Honda is hardly alone.
Last week, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The New York Times that Republicans’ decision to block any nominee Obama selects “has a smell of racism.”
He’s not backing down.
“I stand by that statement,” Butterfield said Wednesday.
“President Obama is president until Jan. 20 of 2017. And he has not only the right but the obligation to put forth a name. And the Senate has an obligation to take up the nomination,” he said.
Asked if a white president would receive a better reception from across the aisle, Butterfield didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely,” he said. “No question about it.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Butterfield’s assessment is right on target.
“I couldn’t agree with the chairman of the Black Caucus more,” he said Wednesday.
Grijalva, a prominent member of the Hispanic Caucus, said the Republicans’ personal attacks on Obama mark a drastic shift from the Democrats’ approach to former President George W. Bush.
“We disagreed, we bashed him, but it was a policy issue. With Obama, it’s been deep-seated and offensive,” Grijalva said.
“Ideology: a factor. Party affiliation: a factor. Race: a factor,” he added. “No question about it.”
The fierce battle to fill the Supreme Court vacancy began on Feb. 13, the day of Scalia’s unexpected death, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quickly issued a statement vowing to kick the nomination process to the next president.
Other GOP leaders quickly followed suit, and on Tuesday the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee said there will be no hearings — let alone a floor vote — on Obama’s pick.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, noted Wednesday that Congress has seated six Supreme Court justices in presidential election years since 1912. He declined to guess at the GOP’s motivations for denying Obama’s pick but said there are real concerns among Democrats — particularly among minorities — that Obama has been treated more harshly than his predecessors.
“Certainly there’s concern that every time the president wants to put forward a nominee for any position — whether it’s a judicial position, or to fill a Cabinet position — that the president is greeted hostilely,” said Becerra, another prominent Hispanic Caucus member.
“If I were in the shoes of a lot of folks who have felt the heat of exclusion — and I have, on occasion, as a result of the color of my skin and my national origin — I can understand.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democratic whip, piled on, calling McConnell’s refusal to consider a nominee “outrageous” and suggesting Obama has been the target of discrimination.
“His refusal ... is yet another example of how Republicans first consider nominees put forward by this President not on their merits but on the basis of who nominated them,” Hoyer said in an email. “This kind of double standard with regard to President Obama must not be tolerated.”
Both McConnell’s and Grassley’s offices declined to respond on the record Wednesday.
But GOP leaders are highlighting a series of past statements from Democratic leaders — including Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Vice President Biden — to reinforce their position that an election-year nomination vote is a bad idea.
Republican operatives are also quick to note that Democrats blocked a series of minority court nominations under Republican administrations, including Miguel Estrada in 2001 and Janice Rogers Brown in 2003, and the fact that Obama has successfully seated two Supreme Justices without a filibuster fight.
Still, Democrats are near universal in their assessment that Obama’s race has been a factor underlying how he’s been perceived — and treated — in the White House.
“I have never ever seen, in my lifetime — before I was in the Congress [or] in the Congress — a president treated as uncivilly as this president,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, a 79-year-old New Jersey Democrat.
“I think much of it has to do with his politics. Much of it [is] because they never thought he would be elected, for whatever reason, and some of it is a downright reflection of what some constituents feel about the color of his skin.”