WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court vacancy is ready to start courtesy calls with senators who Democrats hope will put election-year pressure on Republicans refusing to consider any Obama nominee.
Merrick Garland met with two top Democrats on Thursday, a day after Obama nominated the 63-year-old appellate court judge and former prosecutor for the seat left empty by the death of the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia last month.
The White House said that after a two-week Senate recess, Garland also will meet with Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, a Republican who’s been a chief focus of Democratic attacks for refusing to let his panel hold a hearing for anyone Obama selects.
Declining to see Garland was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has led the Republican blockade against a hearing or vote until the next president is in place.
But the planned meeting with Grassley underscored a willingness by a small but growing group of Republican senators to say they’d see the nominee, and in some cases take the process further.
“I meet with anybody, and that would include him,” said Sen. Jeff Flake. The Republican said if a Democrat is elected president this November, he’d want the Senate to consider Garland’s nomination during a post-election session because “between him and somebody that a President Clinton might nominate, I think the choice is clear.”
Some Republicans consider Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton likely to make a more liberal selection should she enter the White House.
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte, Susan Collins, James Inhofe, Orrin Hatch and Rob Portman also expressed an openness to meeting with Garland. Ayotte and Portman are among a half-dozen Republican senators in competitive re-election contests who Democrats hope will be pressured into backing hearings and a vote on Garland or be punished for their refusal by voters.
One reason for the intense combat over Scalia’s replacement is that Garland would tilt the court’s 4-4 balance in the liberal direction after decades of conservative dominance.
“The next justice could fundamentally alter the direction of the Supreme Court and have a profound impact on our country,” McConnell said Wednesday. “So of course the American people should have a say in the court’s direction” by their selection of the next president.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, has spent weeks tying Senate Republican opposition to any Obama court nominee to similar views by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner who many party leaders dislike.
“Republicans now face a choice between blindly taking their marching orders from Donald Trump, or doing their jobs and providing fair consideration to this highly qualified nominee,” Reid said Wednesday.
Reid and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, met Thursday with Garland.
Garland is chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered just a step below the Supreme Court in its clout because of its jurisdiction over administration policy.
As a justice, Garland would be expected to take liberal-leaning views on environmental regulation, labor disputes and campaign finance. On criminal defense and national security cases, he has sided often with prosecutors.