GOP DEBATE: Supreme Court Vacancy Takes Center Stage

The candidates

The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia threw a curveball at the Republican presidential candidates debating in South Carolina Saturday night, and most of them responded by taking a swing at President Obama.

Most of the candidates said either that Obama, in his final year in office, should make no nomination for a justice to replace Scalia, or that the Senate, which has a Republican majority, should block any Obama nominee, therefore letting the next president make the appointment. Several had made their views about this known earlier in the day as well.

The debate was also marked by sharp exchanges involving several candidates — Donald Trump versus Jeb Bush, Trump versus Ted Cruz, and Cruz versus Marco Rubio. And there was the usual condemnation of marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and just about anything else that happened during Obama’s presidency.

Moderator John Dickerson opened the CBS News debate in Greenville by asking the candidates about whether Obama should make a nomination to fill the high court vacancy created by Scalia’s death. Trump said he expected Obama to do so, prompting Dickerson to ask, “You’re OK with the president nominating somebody?”

The businessman replied, “I think he's going to do it whether or I'm OK with it or not. I think it's up to [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and everybody else to stop it. It's called delay, delay, delay.”

Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both asserted that it’s been 80 years since a Supreme Court justice was confirmed in the last year of a lame-duck presidency. Dickerson eventually corrected them on this, pointing out that Justice Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Kennedy was nominated in late 1987.

Cruz went on to say that Scalia’s death “underscores the stakes of this election. We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will strike down every restriction on abortion adopted by the states. We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that will reverse the Heller decision, one of Justice Scalia's seminal decisions that upheld the Second Amendment right to keep and to bear arms.

“We are one justice away from a Supreme Court that would undermine the religious liberty of millions of Americans — and the stakes of this election, for this year, for the Senate, the Senate needs to stand strong and say, ‘We're not going to give up the U.S. Supreme Court for a generation by allowing Barack Obama to make one more liberal appointee.’”

Rubio also said Scalia’s death is a reminder of the importance of the election, and he praised the work of the conservative jurist, singling out his dissent in last year’s marriage equality case.

Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who often strikes a more measured tone than the other candidates, said Obama should not make a nomination. “I really wish the president would think about not nominating somebody,” he said. “If you were to nominate somebody, let's have him pick somebody that's going to have unanimous approval, and such widespread approval across the country that this could happen without a lot of recrimination. I don't think that's going to happen, and I would like the president just to for once here put the country first. … And so I believe the president should not move forward, and I think that we ought to let the next president of the United States decide who is going to run that Supreme Court.”

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson likewise said the vacancy should not be filled by an Obama appointee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the president has every right to make a nomination but will probably not submit a “consensus pick.”

While the candidates seemed to have a consensus in their opposition to all things Democratic, they clashed heatedly over some details of what they’d do when president, and over one another’s records. After Bush said his foreign policy priorities would be rebuilding the military, defeating ISIS, and containing Iran, Trump commented, “Jeb is so wrong. You got to fight ISIS first. … You have to knock out ISIS. They're chopping off heads. These are animals. You have to knock em out. You have to knock them off strong. You decide what to do after, you can't fight two wars at one time.”

Bush objected, “This is coming from a guy who gets his foreign policy from ‘the shows.’ … This is a man who insults his way to the nomination.” He later struck back at Trump’s criticism of his brother, President George W. Bush, and the war he waged in Iraq. “I am sick and tired of him going after my family,” Bush said. “My dad is the greatest man alive, in my mind. And while Donald Trump was building a reality TV show, my brother was building a security apparatus to keep us safe. And I'm proud of what he did.”

Trump then put in, “The World Trade Center came down during your brother's reign, remember that. … That’s not keeping us safe.”

It all led Kasich to say, “This is just nuts, OK? Jeez, oh, man.”

A little later, Trump called Bush “weak” on plans to stop undocumented immigrants from coming to the U.S., and Bush responded, “You want to talk about weakness? It's weak to disparage women. … It's weak to denigrate the disabled. And it's really weak to call John McCain a loser.”

Kasich, before taking the next question directed at him, had another comment on the debate’s tone: “What I've been watching here, this back and forth, and these attacks, some of them are personal. I think we're fixing to lose the election to Hillary Clinton if we don't stop this.”

There were more dust-ups later, though, between Cruz and Rubio about who’s more strong in standing against illegal immigration, and between Cruz and Trump on whether Trump’s been a consistent conservative.

“For most of his life his policies have been very, very liberal,” Cruz said of Trump. “For most of his life, he has described himself as very pro-choice and as a supporter of partial birth abortion. Right now, today, as a candidate, he supports federal taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood.”

Trump then challenged Cruz on calls his campaign had made in Iowa, saying Ben Carson had left the presidential race, and accused him of doing the same to Trump in South Carolina, which holds its Republican primary February 20. “This guy will say anything, nasty guy,” Trump said of Cruz. “Now I know why he doesn't have one endorsement from any of his colleagues.”

The rest of the debate included oft-repeated promises to strengthen the military and jump-start the economy with free-market solutions, while some of the candidates’ closing statements came back to social issues, including marriage equality, and to the Supreme Court.

Rubio closed with a promise that if he becomes president, “We are going to be a country that says that life begins at conception and life is worthy of the protection of our laws. We're going to be a country that says that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Cruz touched again on today’s news. “Today, we saw just how great the stakes are — two branches of government hang in the balance,” he said. “Not just the presidency but the Supreme Court. If we get this wrong, if we nominate the wrong candidates, the Second Amendment, life, marriage, religious liberty — every one of those hangs in the balance.”

For more on the debate, check out The Washington Post’s annotated transcript here.