Sheldon Whitehouse not interested in Supreme Court seat

Amid speculation, spokesman says Dem 'would not want to walk away' from Senate

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse speaks during an interview with Eyewitness News in his Washington office in January 2016.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – How does U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sheldon Whitehouse sound to you?

To the Washington rumor mill, at least, it sounds plausible following the unexpected death of Antonin Scalia over the weekend. The Washington Post and USA Today are among the outlets floating Rhode Island’s junior U.S. senator as someone Obama might consider.

Whitehouse was in Europe when news of Scalia’s death broke, attending the Munich Security Conference with U.S. Sen. John McCain. But on Monday evening, his spokesman Caleb Gibson issued a statement aiming at squelching the speculation.

“While it’s an honor to be thought of for the Supreme Court, he would not want to walk away from the seat to which Rhode Islanders elected him,” Gibson told WPRI.com.

“The senator loves serving the people of Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate, where he’s making bipartisan progress growing the economy, making college more affordable, and reforming our corrections system, while fighting to clean up our elections and protect our coasts,” he said.

Still, the idea of a Whitehouse nomination isn’t necessarily a crazy thought.

Whitehouse, 60, has the résumé: he holds a law degree from the University of Virginia and previously served as Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney and attorney general. As a liberal Democrat, he’d likely issue decisions that square with what progressives want on many major issues.

He’s also been on the Obama White House’s radar screen in the past. Vice President Joe Biden confirmed in 2012 that the administration had sounded out Whitehouse about his interest in a Supreme Court appointment, and said the senator wasn’t interested. Two years later Whitehouse declared that he had “no interest at all” in succeeding outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, either.

There is also a political rationale for considering Whitehouse or another U.S. senator. With a partisan battle already under way over whether Senate Republicans should allow Obama to appoint a replacement for Scalia – a conservative giant – some have speculated that a fellow senator would have an easier time winning confirmation from his or her GOP colleagues.

That, however, is where the argument for Whitehouse may break down.

While Whitehouse has worked assiduously to cultivate relationships with his Republican colleagues in recent years, he is still a blue-state Democrat with a long record of public statements about the economy, climate change, abortion and other issues are anathema to the conservative base.

Just last week, for example, Whitehouse blasted Scalia and his fellow high-court conservatives for blocking President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The senator is also a leading critic of the court’s Citizens United decision on campaign finance – an issue that conservative columnist George F. Will highlighted Monday as one reason for Republicans to block Obama from appointing Scalia’s replacement.

Whitehouse won a second six-year term in 2012 with 65% of the vote. He is next up for re-election in 2018.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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