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Merrick Garland Heads To Capitol Hill For What Could Be A Futile Exercise

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., (left) met Thursday with Merrick Garland, President Obama's Supreme Court nominee.
J. Scott Applewhite
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., (left) met Thursday with Merrick Garland, President Obama's Supreme Court nominee.

Federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland headed to Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to meet with senators, beginning the traditional ritual of any nominee to the Supreme Court.

But for the former prosecutor, the exercise could be in vain. Senate Republicans are holding steadfast in their refusal to even consider Garland's nomination to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly last month.

GOP leadership's insistence they won't hold confirmation hearings or a vote during an election year is something Democrats are framing as a failure for Republicans to do their job. And that's a theme President Obama echoed in an exclusive interview with NPR's Nina Totenberg earlier Thursday.

"One of the most puzzling arguments that I've heard from [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and some other Republicans is this notion that the American people should decide. We should let the American people decide as part of this election, who gets to fill this seat," Obama told NPR. "Well, in fact the American people did decide — back in 2012 when they elected me president of the United States with sufficient electoral votes."

"And they also decided that the Republicans would be in the majority. They didn't say we're going to decide that you are going to be in charge for three years and then in the last year you all take a break. They say 'No, you're the president for four years and Mr. McConnell you're going to be the leader because we've given you a Majority in the Senate," the president continued.

Obama's full interview with NPR will air Friday on Morning Edition.

"The American people are perfectly capable of having their say on this issue, so let's give them a voice. Let's let the American people decide. The Senate will appropriately revisit the matter when it considers the qualifications of the nominee the next president nominates, whoever that might be," McConnell said Wednesday following the announcement of Garland's nomination.

Garland's first meeting on the Hill was with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both men smiled from their chairs, surrounded by clicking cameras. Garland kept a stoic look as he ignored press questions about how he felt about being caught in the middle of a partisan fight and whether it was difficult on him personally.

The two met for about 15 minutes and Garland emerged – again not taking questions.

Leahy told reporters Garland was a qualified nominee and deserved the same consideration that other nominees have gotten, regardless of which party controls the White House.

"How can you say we're being fair if we don't even give him a hearing?" Leahy said. "There's no fairness in that."

As for arguments that the confirmation process could bleed into election season, Leahy argued that the moderate judge, who's been confirmed before by the Senate on a bipartisan vote, could easily be vetted, testify before the Judiciary Committee and voted on before Memorial Day, especially if Congress cancels a few planned recesses.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also met with Garland later Thursday afternoon. After their meeting, he emerged to also criticize Republicans for stalling.

"Why are they afraid to meet with him? Why are they afraid to hold hearing? Are they afraid the American people are going to watch these hearings and demand they do something even more than they're demanding now?" Reid asked.

Some GOP senators, including Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois, have signaled they're willing to meet with Garland. All three face tough re-election challenges this fall. Kirk and moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins have both said Garland should get an up or down vote on his nomination.

Garland spoke by phone with other senators, including McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.

Collins said on MSNBC's "MTP Daily" Thursday that she is hopeful some more of her Republican colleagues will also come around on Garland.

"I am pleased to see that many more of my Republican colleagues are now indicating a willingness to sit down and meet with Judge Garland. Originally, virtually no one was willing to do that. Now I'm hearing more and more voices from my colleagues who are willing to sit down with him," the Maine senator said. "So let's see what happens."

While there could be some signs of progress in a GOP caucus that was initially firmly united against any nominee from President Obama ever since the vacancy, Leahy said it wasn't enough.

"This is too important to phone it in," the ranking Judiciary Committee member said. "I've done this with every president since I've been here, whether it's been a Republican or a Democratic president. As a courtesy, you meet with them."

Reid also predicted that the GOP would eventually relent under political pressure.

"I am confident that [Garland's] going to get approval," the Democratic leader said. "Republicans can't continue. It won't work."

Democrats are continuing to hammer Republicans on their decision not to consider Garland, and earlier on Thursday held a press conference outside the Supreme Court, hammering Republicans for "not doing their job." Alongside them were doctors, nurses and construction workers who said they would be fired if they didn't follow through on critical duties.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer blasted Republicans for playing election year politics over Garland, a decision he said could come back to haunt them.

"So if Republicans continue to stand in the way and refuse to do their job, it will only be because they want Donald Trump to pick the next nominee," Schumer said, referencing the controversial GOP presidential front-runner. "Occasionally Republicans may try to distance themselves from him with their words, but the failure to do their job and give Judge Garland the consideration he deserves ties them to Trump in a way they cannot untangle."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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