GOP senators not budging on consideration of Obama pick

By Hannah Hess, Geof Koss, George Cahlink | 03/16/2016 01:22 PM EDT

Republicans today signaled they’ll stand firm in their opposition to considering the nomination of federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

"The only way to empower the American people and ensure they have a voice is for the next president to make the nomination to fill this vacancy," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said after President Obama announced his nominee at a Rose Garden news conference (see related story).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed the point during floor remarks after Obama’s announcement.

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"The American people may well elect a president who decides to nominate Judge Garland for Senate consideration," he said. "The next president may also nominate someone very different. Either way, our view is this: Give the people a voice in the filling of this vacancy."

McConnell’s decision not to consider Garland as a successor for Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative stalwart who died Feb. 13, until after a new president takes office in January would leave the court seat vacant for a year or more.

Democrats say the delay is unreasonable and continue to urge the GOP to fulfill what they say is a constitutional duty to consider the president’s nominee.

Obama is "doing his job this morning," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). "The Republicans should do theirs from this point forward."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted that seven current Republican senators voted to confirm Garland to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1997, calling the nominee "an unassailable pick."

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) concurred, saying, "Judge Garland is going to meet everybody’s standards."

"We ought to have a debate about the nominee’s qualifications and see where it goes," Kaine said.

But one GOP senator who supported Garland in 1997, former Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), drew a distinction from that vote.

"Voting to confirm somebody for the circuit court is quite a bit different than confirming them for the Supreme Court," Hatch told reporters. "I have a high opinion of him."

In Rose Garden remarks this morning, Obama criticized Republicans’ opposition.

"To suggest that someone as qualified and respected as Merrick Garland doesn’t even deserve a hearing, let alone an up or down vote, to join an institution as important as our Supreme Court, when two-thirds of Americans believe otherwise, that would be unprecedented," he said.

"To suggest that someone who has served his country with honor and dignity, with a distinguished track record of delivering justice for the American people, might be treated, as one Republican leader stated, as a political piñata. That can’t be right."

Obama noted that Garland will be on Capitol Hill tomorrow to start meeting with senators, and implored Republicans to "give him a fair hearing and then an up or down vote."

Despite his high opinion of the nominee, Hatch said he would not meet with Garland "under current circumstances."

"It isn’t a question of the person, it’s a question of the toxicity of the climate," he said. "I am sick and tired of having Supreme Court nominations in this politicized atmosphere. It demeans the court, it demeans the whole judicial system."

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who is one of a handful of Republicans to buck their party on this issue, reiterated that stance today.

"I believe the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold a hearing," she told reporters. "That would be the normal course. That is not a quick process, particularly when you’re dealing with an individual who has a 19-year judicial record. That’s going to take a lot of time to read through his decisions, vet him appropriately. That’s not going to be a rapid process, but I would urge the Judiciary Committee to begin that process."

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) would not rule out meeting with Garland, telling reporters, "I’m reserving judgment at this point."

"I think the approach that we’re going to take at this point is that the people should have a voice," he said. "I don’t see you’re going to see much change in how Republicans or Democrats approach this issue. We’re following the Biden rule."

Senate Republicans kept up their pre-emptive strike on the nominee this week, pumping out fact sheets on previous judicial confirmation proceedings. They claim Democrats historically have taken the same position — pointing to remarks Vice President Joe Biden made in 1992 as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, about the hypothetical prospect of then-President George H.W. Bush making a Supreme Court nomination in an election year (E&E Daily, March 4).

The campaign arm in charge of maintaining the Senate majority tried to get out ahead of Obama, suggesting his short list of potential nominees was packed with judges who had donated to his campaigns.

But a Washington Free Beacon story circulated by the National Republican Senatorial Committee noted Garland was the only one of the five federal judges set to be interviewed by the White House who had not donated to Obama.

Though the House plays no role in the nomination fight, the most conservative members of the chamber announced yesterday that they "appreciate" McConnell and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) holding the line against the appointment of a "lame duck" Supreme Court nominee.

The House Freedom Caucus said in a statement: "We appreciate their efforts, we believe that Senate Republicans are acting within the framework of the Constitution to prevent hearings on any nominee, and we expect that they will continue to hold strong."

Reporters Amanda Reilly and Corbin Hiar contributed.

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