We know where Nevada’s senior senator, Harry Reid, stands on quickly appointing a new justice to fill the seat of the late Antonin Scalia — he’s all for it.
We know where the Democratic candidate running to replace Reid stands on the question: Catherine Cortez Masto is all for it, too.
We know (sort of) where the Republican candidate running to replace Reid stands on the question: Rep. Joe Heck doesn’t think an Obama nominee stands much of a chance of getting confirmed by the Senate, but the president has the right to nominate and the Senate has the right to provide advice and consent, so “each entity should exercise its prerogative.”
So where does Nevada’s junior senator stand? Good question.
Dean Heller initially seemed open to Obama naming a nominee. That grabbed headlines, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already said (unconscionably, in my view) that Obama shouldn’t put a name forward, and that the next president should get to fill the vacancy instead.
“The chances of approving a new nominee are slim, but Nevadans should have a voice in the process,” Heller said in a statement released by his office on Wednesday. “That’s why I encourage the president to use this opportunity to put the will of the people ahead of advancing a liberal agenda on the nation’s highest court. But should he decide to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, who knows, maybe it’ll be a Nevadan.”
That last line was a reference to former U.S. District Court judge and incumbent Gov. Brian Sandoval, who’s been discussed as a potential nominee. (Side note: Sandoval would surely do Nevada and the nation proud in any judicial office.)
I was glad to see Heller put some distance between himself and McConnell, who I’d derided on Wednesday as a traitor to his oath, an obstructionist and unfit for office. I gave Heller a bit of praise on Twitter, in fact: “I appreciate Heller’s breaking with Senate colleagues who simply want to ignore any Obama nominee to SCOTUS,” I said, referring to the Supreme Court of the United States.
But apparently, not everybody appreciated Heller’s stand. Later in the day, The Associated Press reported that Heller’s spokesman had clarified Heller’s remarks, and by “clarified,” of course I mean “repudiated.”
“In a subsequent email, Neal Patel, Heller’s communications director, said the senator does not want Obama to announce a nomination,” wrote AP reporter Alan Fram. “‘Nevadans should have a voice in the process means this November on Election Day,’ Patel wrote.”
Well, that certainly changes things. How could Heller oppose a presidential nomination when he’d openly contemplated a nomination in his statement? I asked Patel — several times — about the email to the AP and about Heller’s actual stance, but over the course of several emails, I received no clarity whatsoever.
But if Patel was expressing Heller’s true feelings in his email, well, that would be just fine with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, who excoriated Heller in an open letter published on CNN’s website Thursday for even considering a nomination. Calling Heller’s original statement “cowardly,” Hewitt went on to demand Heller join McConnell’s position in opposition to even considering a nominee.
“Because your statement Wednesday indicated you are not a fighter, but a word-salad-flinging, finger-in-the-wind pol willing to sacrifice my free exercise rights for your re-election, I have no choice in this matter of whether to support your re-election,” Hewitt wrote, adding, “Change your mind and defend the Constitution, or lose your job. You have misjudged the stakes. Badly.”
Hewitt and I will probably never agree on much — including the fact that he abjures Scalia’s decision in the seminal 1990 free exercise of religion case of Employment Div. v. Smith, while I believe that opinion was Scalia at his most common sense and reasonable. But we do agree on this: We’d both like very much to know what Heller’s real stance on the nomination question is, and how his message got so horribly, totally garbled.
— Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and co-host of the show “PoliticsNOW,” airing at 5:30 p.m. Sundays on 8NewsNow. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.