TEXARKANA, Texas — Sen. Ted Cruz was in the middle of a campaign stop on Thursday afternoon, walking through a local factory here where workers build custom truck trailers and parts, when an aide suddenly approached with his iPhone.
Vice President Mike Pence was on the line, and for about 15 minutes, Cruz, the outspoken tea party conservative and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, ducked into a partially shaded alcove seeking shelter from the oppressive Texas heat. And Pence talked to Cruz about an issue that may ultimately consume every bit of political oxygen in coming months: President Trump’s looming decision on a nominee to be the next Supreme Court justice.
Trump has said he will announce his pick to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on Monday, setting the stage for a political fight that could not only transform the nation’s top court for a generation but also affect the coming midterm elections where Republicans are fighting to keep majority control of Congress.
While much of the focus has been on moderate Republican lawmakers, like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the White House has equally been focused on staunch conservatives like Cruz, who could also make or break Trump’s potential nominee.
Cruz, who is facing a tough reelection battle in Texas, said he had spoken to the president several times on the issue of the Supreme Court — most recently in a 30-minute conversation over the weekend. The junior senator from Texas has thrown his endorsement to Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a fellow conservative and close friend who was confirmed last week to be on Trump’s shortlist and has been interviewed for the job.
Pence’s call to Cruz came a couple of hours after the report, and while the Texas senator would not divulge their exact conversation, he indicated in an interview that he had again urged Trump to pick Lee, who once clerked for Justice Samuel Alito and served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Utah before running for Senate.
He pointed to former Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun — “the author of Roe v. Wade,” he said — as GOP picks who were later perceived as disasters by conservatives.
“In modern times, Republicans have messed up Supreme Court nominations over and over again. And inevitably when we mess up, when we go with a nominee that doesn’t have a proven record, that hasn’t been tested and hasn’t been through the fire — virtually 100 percent of the time when Republican presidents do that, the result is not good,” Cruz told Yahoo News.
While he said Trump had “good choices” on his list, he argued that Lee is better positioned because he has a paper trail and core views that aren’t a mystery to his Senate colleagues or the White House.
“He has proven for many years to be a strong, principled constitutionalist who won’t crumple under the pressure. And President Trump promised to nominate judges in the mold of [the late Justice Antonin] Scalia and [Justice Clarence] Thomas,” Cruz said. “Mike Lee is someone who, I am certain, 20, 30, 40 years from now we will look back and see a justice in the mold of Scalia or Thomas who hasn’t abandoned their fidelity to the Constitution.”
Kavanaugh, who has been described as a frontrunner for the nomination, has faced grumbling from some hard-core conservatives who voiced concern that he is unreliable on the issues of abortion and the Affordable Care Act. Asked specifically about Kavanaugh, who, like Cruz, worked in the George W. Bush administration, Cruz called him a “good man” and an “honorable man” but declined to say if he would support him.
“I think the best choice from the list is Sen. Mike Lee, so I am focusing my time and energy on explaining why, of all the very good choices on the list, Mike Lee is hands down the best choice,” he said
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