Sen. Chuck Grassley cracked open the door to the Senate’s Mansfield Room. He craned as little of his neck and glasses around the tall wooden door as possible.
Earlier in the morning, on their first full day back in session since the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate Republicans had announced that the Judiciary Committee would not even hold hearings on any nominee picked by President Barack Obama to succeed Scalia.
Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had managed to avoid the press so far that day. Now, as he peered down the hall, he caught a glimpse of cameras and reporters staking him out. They had anticipated that Grassley might try to sneak out the back way and were waiting for him.
He quickly retreated back inside like a groundhog seeing his shadow.
The 82-year-old Iowa farmer known for his typo-riddled tweets, homespun style, annual 99-county tours of Iowa, and a decades-long career in Washington has little experience in being the focal point of a Capitol Hill political showdown in the national spotlight, but here he is thrust into history over the future of the Supreme Court.
Grassley doesn’t fit the profile of conservative flame-thrower. While no one questions his conservative credentials — he’s led efforts to stop Obamacare when he was ranking member of the Finance Committee and has been at the center of the Senate investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email server — Grassley’s approach to political friction has always appeared measured. Before the final call was made not to hold hearings on a justice, Grassley initially told Iowa reporters that he had not ruled out moving through the process and would wait for Obama to reveal a nominee.
While it is true that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set the tone for the showdown over the Supreme Court with a statement just hours after Scalia died that the President should not even bother appointing a replacement to the court, many Democrats held their breath that Grassley, a chairman who has built a reputation for building relationships with Democrats on his committee and even getting to ‘yes’ on issues he once voiced vehement opposition to like criminal justice reform, may be open to at the very least moving through the process.
Democrats had seen Grassley as a chairman they could do business with, someone who adhered to Republican ideology, but approached issues with fairness and an open mind. He was perceived as someone who could always be convinced.
Grassley was always an unconventional pick to lead the Judiciary Committee as the only chairman in the committee’s history not to have a law degree. Yet, Grassley wanted a role to do oversight and he decided to lead Judiciary rather than preside as chair over the powerful Senate Finance or Budget committees.
Now Democrats have made Grassley enemy number one in their war to win public opinion on Scalia’s successor. Last week Minority Leader Harry Reid went to the Senate floor to admonish Republicans for being derelict in their duties to meet with or hold hearings for an eventual nominee to replace Scalia. The man in the crosshairs of his attacks? Grassley.
“Sen. Grassley has surrendered every pretense of independence and let the Republican leader annex the Judiciary Committee into a narrow partisan mission of obstruction and gridlock,” Reid said on the floor. “He will be the first Judiciary Committee chairman ever to refuse to hold a hearing on a Supreme Court nominee. That is quite an achievement, but none should make him very proud. “
Back home in Iowa, Grassley –who is up for re-election in 2016– is facing scathing op-eds in local papers from the Des Moines Register to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
“This could have been a ‘profile in courage’ moment for Sen. Grassley. This was an opportunity for our senior senator to be less of a politician and more of a statesman. It was a chance for him to be principled rather than partisan,” the Des Moines Register’s editorial board wrote.
Cedar Rapids’d Gazette charged that Grassley owed Iowans “a full explanation if [he] is considering sidestepping a Supreme Court nomination process spelled out in the Constitution in favor of leaving the court short-handed for nearly a year, or longer.”
Democrats now are trying to translate Grassley’s linchpin role in the Supreme Court drama into a campaign slogan against him in Iowa. Patty Judge, a former Democratic lieutenant governor in the state, told the Des Moines Register last week she was considering jumping into the race to challenge Grassley now after he ruled out hearings.
“Iowans have always been straight shooters, and up until the recent time I would have said the same thing about Chuck,” Judge told the Des Moines Register.
There are already three other Democrats in the race hoping to unseat Grassley in November: current state Sen. Robb Hogg and two other former lawmakers in the state Tom Fiegen and Bob Krause. So far, none of them look to be competitive against six-term Grassley whose approval rating last summer was in the high 60s. A Quinnipiac poll showed that the majority of Republicans and even four in 10 Democrats wanted him to be reelected.
“We tend to like our incumbents,” says Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “This may open up the door for Democrats to unseat Grassley, but it is still an uphill climb.”
As much as Democrats may be putting the pressure on Grassley, Republicans are lining up behind him in Washington and back in the state.
“I am not a person who is very easily impressed,” says Adair County Republican Party Chairman Ryan Frederick “I don’t think I have ever been prouder of anyone I have voted for in my life than I am of Chuck Grassley right now.”
Grassley might be following McConnell’s script for the moment on the Supreme Court, but the judiciary committee chairman doesn’t seem to be squirming over his stance. Grassley will meet with President Obama this week to discuss the vacancy on the court. And there is no doubt he will continue to be caught between Republicans and Democrats as the fight wages on.
But Grassley says he’s comfortable with where he has chosen to stand.
“Do you think I spend my days wondering about how Chuck Grassley will go down in history? I don’t care if I ever go down in history,” Grassley told reporters last week on Capitol Hill, according to The Hill. “I’m here to do my job.”