As Judge Merrick Garland makes his rounds on Capitol Hill this week, senators are peppering the Supreme Court nominee with questions aimed at revealing his views on regulatory actions.
President Obama’s critics have called the courtesy calls meaningless "non-events," given Republican leaders’ firm opposition to holding hearings on Garland’s nomination. But the White House is convinced that its "consensus candidate" will sway individual senators.
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Maine Republican who has earned passing grades from environmental groups, emerged from an hourlong meeting with Garland saying she found his answers "extremely straightforward."
"It was a lengthy meeting. I brought up issues ranging from Second Amendment cases to executive overreach, to the role of the court, to perceptions of the court, and he gave very thorough, impressive responses to all of my questions," Collins told reporters.
West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, facing pressure from coal lobby groups that suspect Garland would uphold controversial U.S. EPA rules, acknowledged "a lot of accusations out there" on Garland’s record.
"I’ve tried to read and study a little bit and I’ve been briefed up on all of this, and we’re going to have a discussion on a lot of issues," Manchin said before his afternoon sit-down with the judge, in response to a question about gun laws.
Asked directly about the West Virginia Coal Association’s suggestion that President Obama intended to appoint a nominee who would "tip the balance in favor of his war on coal," Manchin said that was why he needed an individual meeting with Garland (Greenwire, March 24).
"This is the process," Manchin replied. "Again, to my friends who haven’t desired or haven’t shown a desire to talk to Judge Garland, I can’t answer the questions you’re asking me until I ask him and we talk about it."
Manchin said he "can’t comprehend why" a majority of Republicans are opposed to meeting with Obama’s nominee. But he also told reporters he is not putting pressure on GOP colleagues to change their position, though he hopes they will eventually allow the process to proceed.
McConnell doubles down
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell restated his red line yesterday that there will be no hearing or vote on President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.
"The situation when we broke for the recess two weeks ago was that there were 52 Republican senators who didn’t think we needed either hearings or a vote in committee," McConnell told reporters. "Today, two weeks later, we have 52 Republicans who think we don’t need either hearings or a vote in committee."
He added, "I think it is safe to say there will not be hearings or votes."
Sen. John Boozman, who yesterday became the third Republican to meet with Garland, told the judge that he stands by his position that the next president should fill the vacancy.
"I strongly disagree with President Obama’s contention that the Senate must rubber-stamp his nominee in the final year of his presidency. However, I believe we can disagree without being disagreeable, which is why I accepted the request of the White House to meet with Judge Garland," Boozman said after the meeting.
With a similar sentiment, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) added an April 14 meeting with Garland to his schedule. His office made clear that the senator’s stance on waiting for the next president to appoint the ninth justice had not changed.
"These meetings are non-events, no matter how badly the White House wishes the opposite were true," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, a right-leaning group that is spending millions of dollars on backing the GOP’s Garland blockade (Greenwire, March 25).
"The only reason we hear anything about these courtesy meetings is that the White House is desperate to spin every act of political theater into a sign of life for the nomination," Severino said.
"Where we have had concerns about senators supporting a liberal nominee who is deeply out of step with their state — places like North Dakota, Colorado, and West Virginia — we have urged constituents to contact their senators," she added. "But that is not true in these cases."
Attacks on the court
Collins, one of two Republican senators who supports a hearing for Garland, suggested that Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) might be swayed after he breaks bread with the judge (E&E Daily, April 5).
"The next step, in my view, should be public hearings before the Judiciary Committee so that the issues that we explored in my office can be publicly aired and so that senators can have a better opportunity to flesh out all of the issues that we discussed," Collins said, explaining that it was "premature" for her to say whether she would vote to confirm Garland before hearings.
But Grassley took to the Senate floor yesterday afternoon with a speech that fanned critics’ flames. Chief Justice John Roberts further damaged respect for the courts, Grassley alleged, in February with blunt remarks to the New England School of Law on Supreme Court vacancies.
Roberts suggested that the "sharply political, divisive hearing process" for confirming justices hurts the court’s legitimacy and authority.
"The chief justice regrets that the American people believe that the court is no different from the political branches of government. But again, and with respect, I think he is concerned with the wrong problem," Grassley said.
Roberts "would be well-served to address the reality — not the perception — that too often there is little difference between the actions of the court and the actions of the political branches," Grassley said, railing against justices for voting too often on politics and subjective opinions "not on law."
Democrats characterized the speech as "unglued."
White House spokesman Eric Schultz noted that, in addition to the Grassley breakfast, several other meetings with Republicans have now been confirmed on Capitol Hill. Those include visits with Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
"These courtesy visits are an important step in the Senate confirmation process and represent opportunities for senators to have thoughtful, substantive conversations with … Garland. We look forward to additional Senate meetings in the coming weeks," Schultz said.
‘Still in the quiver’
Grassley recently said he expected Democrats to attempt to force a vote by yanking Garland’s nomination from his committee and forcing it to the floor (Greenwire, March 29). Asked about those comments, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the onus is on Republicans to act on the nominee.
"I think what Senator Grassley should do is tend to his own business and leave ours alone, OK?" Reid told reporters after the weekly caucus luncheons. "We feel comfortable where we are; the obligation is for them to hold hearings and a vote. That’s in the Constitution."
Reid said, "The procedural stuff, there are many procedural things we can do; that’s one thing we can do. Certainly, we’ve got that in our arrow quiver, to do that — and other things, if we choose. Right now, the pressure’s on them, not on us."
But Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) later conceded that forcing a vote would be a long shot.
"As Senator Reid said, we have a lot of options, and we’ll consider all of them," he told reporters. "I’ve never seen a discharge petition on a nomination, so I can’t tell you how it works. "
Asked whether such a move would likely amount to a protest vote that would fall on party lines, Durbin responded, "That’s one of the reasons why it’s still in the quiver."
Reporter Geof Koss contributed.