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White House views coalesce behind pre-election vote on Trump Supreme Court pick

The president's scheduled announcement Saturday of a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would leave less than 40 days before the election for Senate confirmation.
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WASHINGTON — A consensus has formed within the West Wing to push for a vote on President Donald Trump's coming Supreme Court nominee before the election, with aides and advisers saying they are increasingly optimistic that they will be able to pull off the speedy confirmation.

Some outside advisers had initially argued that waiting to hold a vote until after Election Day could be the most politically advantageous strategy, said a person familiar with the thinking. Having the seat vacant could motivate conservatives to turn out for Trump to ensure that it got filled and save senators in tight races from having to make a controversial vote so close to the election.

But the momentum in the past 48 hours has swung toward getting a vote done as soon as possible, with those inside and outside the White House arguing that the quicker the process, the more likely they are to fill the seat, senior administration officials said. An official said it now looks like a "strong possibility" that there will be a vote before Election Day as consensus grows among Republican senators to move ahead with the nomination.

Ultimately, the timing will be up to Senate Republicans. At the Republican closed-door lunch Tuesday focused on politics and the Senate race forecast, there was some discussion about timing, according to multiple sources. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has refused to specify a timeline, saying instead Tuesday that he would proceed with a vote when the nominee emerges from the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham has said he would announce timing for a committee hearing and a vote after Trump names a nominee; three sources told NBC News that the committee is planning to hold a hearing in the first half of October.

Trump and White House aides have been in regular contact with McConnell and his staff, officials have said.

There are other practical challenges to a speedy confirmation, beyond politics and strategy: The nominee must undergo an updated FBI background check, the Senate Judiciary Committee needs to hold a hearing and the nominee must be voted out of committee — all necessary steps in a process that could take weeks, and be accompanied by any number of unforeseen delays.

If Trump names his pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Saturday, as he has indicated he will, the Senate would have less than 40 days before the election to confirm a nominee — a speedy schedule by recent standards, although not unprecedented. Trump met Monday with one possible nominee, federal appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett, and he is scheduled to meet Friday in Miami with another front-runner, federal appeals Judge Barbara Lagoa.

Trump said Monday that one reason he wanted a vote as soon as possible was that he doesn't want to have a tie in any future court rulings. The court, now at eight members, is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case involving the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 10, and the justices could have a role to play in the election if the results are contested.

"So let's say I make the announcement on Saturday — there's a great deal of time before the election," Trump said Monday. "That'll be up to Mitch in the Senate. But I'd certainly much rather have the vote. I think it sends a good signal. And it's solidarity and lots of other things."

If Republicans lose control of the Senate, they would still be able to vote on a nominee during the lame-duck session before new senators are sworn in at the start of January. But they run the risk that public sentiment could shift further away from Republicans' filling the seat should the party lose control of the Senate, the White House or both — risking the solidity of the mostly united front Republican senators currently show, an outside adviser said.

But waiting until after the election could aid Republican senators facing tough races in traditionally red states, including Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Martha McSally of Arizona, the adviser said. For those senators, there could be a political advantage in having the seat open on Election Day as a way to motivate conservative voters.

Republicans have a four-seat majority in the Senate, while six Republican incumbents either trail their opponents or hold razor-thin leads.

No president has seated a Supreme Court nominee within three months of a presidential election, according to Senate historical records dating to 1900. President Lyndon Johnson tried to fill a vacant seat in 1968, but when he had to withdraw the nomination because of ethical concerns, he declined to nominate a new justice, saying then that "in ordinary times I would feel it my duty now to send another name to the Senate for this high office. I shall not do so."

While recent Supreme Court nominees have taken more than 60 days to get confirmed, there is some precedent for a speedier process — Republicans have been pointing to the 33 days it took to get Sandra Day O'Connor confirmed in 1981.

Trump retweeted comments Tuesday by talk radio host Rush Limbaugh calling for the Senate to skip hearings and move straight to a vote, but White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the White House was working with Graham on following the traditional committee hearing process.