Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson suggested on Thursday that he might feel differently about filling Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's seat if a conservative president were in office.
Johnson appeared Thursday morning on the Janesville radio show "Morning Mess" and was asked by host Scott Thompson whether Republicans would be more likely to push for the seat vacated by Scalia's death had Mitt Romney been elected president in 2012.
"It's a different situation," Johnson said. "Generally, and this is the way it works out politically ... if a conservative president's replacing a conservative justice, there's a little more accommodation to it. But when you're talking about a conservative justice now being replaced by a liberal president, who would literally flip the court — I mean, let's face it, I don't think anybody's under any illusion, President Obama's nominee would flip the court from a 5-4 conservative to a 5-4 liberal-controlled court, and that's the concern, is that our Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, our First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty, will be threatened."
Johnson said it is an "incredibly serious moment" to determine the future composition of the court, and the "fairest thing to do" is wait until voters have elected the next president to fill the seat.
Republican leaders in the Senate have said they won't meet with anyone President Barack Obama nominates to the court. And Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said last month the panel does not intend to hold a hearing for any Obama nominee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Thursday Republicans are "setting a precedent" that in the last year of a lame-duck presidential term, Supreme Court vacancies will not be filled.
Johnson faces a challenge in 2016 from former Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, who he unseated in 2010.
Feingold has said the Senate isn't doing its job if it doesn't at least look at the nominee.
"Sadly, Sen. Johnson is confirming that he’s only willing to do his job if it helps Washington Republicans. Sen. Johnson was hired by the people of Wisconsin, not Mitch McConnell and not the Koch Brothers," said Feingold spokesman Michael Tyler in an email. "He should do the job he was hired for and consider any Supreme Court nominee, whether it’s from a Republican President or a Democrat. But if he won't do his job, at least he's being honest that his interest lies with Washington Republicans rather than with the people of Wisconsin."
Johnson's campaign says Feingold is hypocritical to call for a vote on an Obama nominee because in 2005 he said he wouldn't rule out a filibuster of Justice Samuel Alito's confirmation.
Johnson spokesman Brian Reisinger said the senator's comments on Thursday were misinterpreted.
"Ron has been clear from the beginning that we should let the American people decide. Ron did not say what the Senate would or would not do under a hypothetical situation — unlike Senator Feingold, who has changed his tune for political expedience after filibustering a vote on Justice Alito," Reisinger said in an email.