Senate Democrats roundly criticized their Republican colleagues for refusing to meet with and hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, during his first official visit to Capitol Hill.
On Thursday afternoon, Garland huddled with top Judiciary Committee Democrat Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.) in his office for a meeting that lasted less than 20 minutes. He was set to meet with Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) afterward.
Leahy said he and Garland — the chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — did not discuss politics or any role the judge might play in trying to persuade Senate Republicans to give him a chance. “He’s not going to go out before the press like I am here,” Leahy told reporters. “Where he gets a chance to say anything is at a hearing.”
Garland didn’t stick around to speak with the press after meeting with the Vermont Democrat — he and Leahy walked down a hallway and out of sight before Leahy returned by himself to field questions from reporters.
The Democratic senator’s assessment of Garland, whom he has known a long time, was simple. “What you see is what you get with him,” Leahy said. “There’s no hidden agenda.”
Leahy surmised that if Republican leaders were willing to move ahead with considering the nomination, they could finish things up by Memorial Day. If scheduled recesses were to get in the way, “cancel a couple,” he advocated.
Leahy slammed Republican leaders for thus far speaking with Garland only by phone. “This is too important to phone it in,” Leahy said. “As a courtesy, you meet with him. … They owe it to their constituents. They owe it to the country.”
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate Republicans have declared they will not hold confirmation hearings or vote on Garland before the November election, saying the new president should be allowed to fill the empty Supreme Court seat left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Among those forming ranks around McConnell is Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).
But some Republicans — including Grassley and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), all of whom are up for reelection this year — have said they would be willing to meet with Garland personally, even if they would refuse to formally consider his nomination before November.
McConnell, however, has rejected such a meeting, phoning Garland on Wednesday afternoon following his appointment in a move he described as a “more considerate” use of Garland’s time that would avoid “more unnecessary political routines orchestrated by the White House.”
Grassley also spoke by phone with Garland, and Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said the senator congratulated Garland but informed him Republicans do not intend to move on a nomination until after a new president is in office. Grassley plans to repeat that to Garland if a meeting is scheduled, Levine said.
McConnell, Grassley and others have stressed that their objection to Garland’s nomination isn’t personal. Seven Republican senators voted to confirm him to the federal bench in 1997. They also argue their opposition isn’t political, since no one knows which party will next occupy the White House — though some Republicans also contend Obama lost his popular mandate to make a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court when the GOP gained the Senate majority in 2014.
“When it comes to fulfilling the current Supreme Court vacancy, which could fundamentally alter the direction of the court for a generation, Republicans and Democrats simply disagree,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. “We simply disagree. Republicans think that the people deserve a voice in this critical decision; the president does not. … As a result, we logically act as a check and balance.”
Grassley, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said: “People spoke in the midterm election, and [Obama] came out on the short end of that. In America, a democracy, you have to accept the judgment of the voters.”
Speaking at the Center for American Progress on Thursday morning, Reid repeated his prediction that Republicans will eventually cave and allow a hearing and an up-or-down vote on Garland’s nomination.
“Time will only tell, but I can’t imagine how this is going to help the Republicans who are running for the Senate, to have the gall … to say, ‘We refuse to meet with the person, no matter who it is,’ ” he said.
A handful of Senate Republicans said they would be willing to at least talk with Garland and consider his nomination, even if the Judiciary Committee doesn’t plan to move forward with the formal confirmation process. There was also buzz about the possibility of considering Garland during a lame-duck session after the presidential election if it’s won by a Democrat.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he “would certainly prefer a pick like Garland, rather than someone Hillary Clinton might put up” if she wins the election.
Flake is one of about a half-dozen Republicans who said they would be willing to sit down with Garland — something Democrats are claiming as a preliminary victory.
“The cave has already started,” Reid said Thursday. “Now maybe they will be browbeaten by the leadership of the Senate and they’ll back off, but that’s a breakthrough … that they will sit down and talk to this good man.”
Reid dismissed speculation that the Senate might act in a lame-duck session if a Democrat is elected to succeed Obama: “I don’t think we should cut any slack to anybody by saying, ‘Let’s wait till the lame duck to do it.’ I don’t agree with that. I think we should do it now. It’s unfair to have this man treated differently than anybody else.”
But he did not rule it out. “Is it possible? Of course, it’s possible,” Reid said. “… [But] it doesn’t set a good precedent for the country that we run from a Supreme Court nominee.”
Garland, a centrist, appears to have a decent reputation among Senate Republicans, some of whom surmised that Obama made his pick expressly to try to force Republicans to abandon their blockade.
“I think he was really trying to pick somebody that he thought at least some Senate Republicans would accept right now,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with considering Supreme Court nominations.
But even some who have backed Garland before are not willing to abandon principle to advance his nomination.
Hatch was one of seven sitting Republican senators to back putting Garland on the federal bench in 1997, and told reporters he “fought for him” back then, during Garland’s long confirmation process.
“But this is different,” Hatch said, describing the current environment as too “toxic” and “politicized” to consider anybody.
Of the seven Republicans who previously voted for Garland — a list that also includes Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Daniel Coats (Ind.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), James M. Inhofe (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Pat Roberts (Kan.) — only two, Collins and Inhofe, said on Wednesday they were willing to consider and evaluate Garland.
“I will be examining Chief Judge Garland’s judicial record, as well as other relevant materials,” Collins said in a statement, calling Garland an “accomplished jurist.”
“This is the approach I have taken with every judicial nominee who has come before me throughout my service in the Senate, and that is the process that I will follow with this nomination as well,” she said.
Democrats are also hoping that political pressure forces vulnerable Senate Republicans up for reelection this year to reconsider their opposition and push GOP leaders to put him through the confirmation process.
But even vulnerable Republicans are holding firm at this point, echoing McConnell’s line that the next president should pick the new justice.
“I continue to believe the Senate should not move forward with the confirmation process until the people have spoken by electing a new president,” Ayotte said in a statement.
And Portman said in a statement that “after the election, I look forward to considering the nominee of our new president.”