Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday tried to clear his name and tout his record on Supreme Court nominations, calling Republican branding of his past remarks on the subject "ridiculous" and casting himself as a longtime advocate of bipartisan compromise in filling seats on the high court.
In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Biden issued a broad warning that Republicans' election-year blockade of President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, "can lead to a genuine Constitutional crisis" and sought to distance himself from the strategy. He argued Republicans have distorted a 1992 speech in which he seemed to endorse the notion of blocking any Supreme Court nominee put forward in the throes of the election season.
Republicans have labeled their strategy the "Biden rule." They are using the 1992 Biden speech in an attempt to cast their no-hearing, no-vote campaign as part of a Senate tradition — their defense to Democrats' charges that they're shirking their Constitutional duty.
But there is division within the ranks on that front. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., made the case earlier this week that Garland should get a vote.
Biden, a former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said his broader point in the lengthy Senate floor speech was to call for more consultation with the Senate in choosing a nominee, a practice he said would lead to nominees with less extreme views. Obama "followed the path of moderation" in picking Garland, Biden said Thursday.
"There is no Biden rule. It doesn't exist," Biden told professors and students. "There is only one rule I ever followed in the Judiciary Committee. That was the Constitution's clear rule of advice and consent."
Biden's defense focuses on a later section on the speech, in which he called on then-President George H.W. Bush and future presidents to work more closely with the Senate to name moderate nominees. Earlier in the speech, Biden warned that if Bush were to name a nominee immediately, weeks before the summer political conventions, "the Senate Judiciary Committee should seriously consider not scheduling confirmation hearings on the nomination until after the political campaign season is over."
The remarks have proven problematic for Biden, a veteran of decades of Supreme Court battles. After more than 15 years on the Judiciary Committee, eight as chairman, few in Washington can match Biden's experience with judicial nominations. Facing perhaps the last big political fight of his career, the vice president has appeared eager to dive into a familiar debate.
In his remarks Thursday, Biden said every nominee during his time on the committee got a hearing and a floor vote. "Not much of the time. Not most of the time. Every single, solitary time," he said.
Biden, who has acted as a stealthy liaison to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in past negotiations, has begun some of that work. He has reached out to some Republican senators, and he has pressed the issue while campaigning for Democrats in Seattle and Ohio. His role is likely to increase as the process moves forward.
Republicans won't make it easy. Immediately after Biden's remarks Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus issued a statement accusing Biden of hypocrisy.
"The vice president's weak attempt to walk back his own standard on opposing election-year Supreme Court nominees just can't be taken seriously," Priebus said.
Moran, the Republican senator, said earlier this week he would likely vote against an Obama nominee, but "I would rather have you (constituents) complaining to me that I voted wrong on nominating somebody than saying I'm not doing my job," according to The Garden City (Kan.) Telegram.
Moran, who is up for re-election this fall, is from a solidly Republican state and is former head of the Senate GOP's campaign organization.
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois also has called for a Senate vote. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the Senate should follow "normal order" on Garland, including a hearing.
At least 12 Senate Republicans have said they will meet with the Obama nominee.
Led by McConnell, R-Ky., most GOP lawmakers have said they will not consider an Obama pick for the vacancy and will instead await a selection by the next president. Democrats have been watching each announcement by GOP senators in the hope that pressure will mount on McConnell to reverse his position — or, if not, lose seats in November over the issue.
Biden said he and Obama had studiously consulted with the Senate in picking Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of the Columbia, allowing the reality of divided government to shape the choice. He and Obama ultimately followed the "course of moderation," Biden said. Garland, 63, is not a liberal giant in the mold of former Justice William Brennan, and Biden acknowledged that the choice of Garland had angered some in his party's base.
"The president did not go out and find another Brennan. Merrick Garland, intellectually, is as capable as any justice, but he has a reputation for moderation. I think that's a responsibility of the administration in a divided government," Biden said. "Some of my liberal friends don't agree with me, but I do."