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It only took one man's death to give Congress an opening to permeate its dysfunction throughout the rest of government.
 
Republican opposition to letting President Barack Obama replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia quickly sparked a constitutional clash over the president's right to fill Supreme Court vacancies. Democrats, who have their own history of boxing out Republicans over court nominees, are up in arms, but begrudgingly concede that Obama's pick is unlikely to be confirmed.

So as both parties prepare for political brawling, the eight remaining justices could spend the next year hearing critical cases alongside an empty seat, unable to break a tie in the event of a 4-4 split.

The standoff raises a scenario that Washington long has dreaded: that bitter partisanship in Congress, mixed with the tactics of obstruction such as the filibuster, would eventually jeopardize another branch's basic ability to function.

"If Republicans do what they suggest, I think we're headed not only for a constitutional crisis but also for big problems for the legislative process," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "This is the natural reaction to the continued Senate breakdown we've seen for years."

Supreme Court nominees have been rejected before. Yet Democrats accuse Republicans of taking obstructionism to a new level by insisting Obama not even name a nominee with 11 months left in his term — and refusing to hold a confirmation vote if he does. Though the Constitution is clear that it is the president who nominates, Republicans say the Founding Fathers never required the Senate to give a vote.


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