GOP senator open to voting for Obama's Supreme Court nominee
© Greg Nash

Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE on Tuesday became the first Republican to say he might be willing to vote for President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court.

"Obviously I would consider voting for him," the Illinois senator told reporters before he met with the nominee, Judge Merrick Garland. "That's the whole purpose." 

Kirk, who is facing a difficult reelection race this year, rebuked his colleagues for refusing to give any consideration to the judge.

"We need open-minded, rational, responsible people to keep an open mind to make sure the process works," Kirk told a throng of reporters packed in his Capitol office. "I think when you just say 'I'm not going to meet with him at all,' that's too close-minded."

Kirk’s meeting with Garland — the first by any Republican on Capitol Hill — came just hours after the Supreme Court issued its first major split decision since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The 4-4 deadlock represented a major victory to labor unions, which had faced the possibility of mandatory union fees being overturned for public sector workers.

Unions had been expected to lose the case before Scalia’s death, highlighting what’s at stake now as the parties battle over a nominee who, if confirmed, could tip the court in a decisively liberal direction. 

Kirk has broken strongly with GOP leaders over the Supreme Court vacancy, saying he thinks senators should “man up” and have a vote. 

Behind Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Overnight Finance: Lawmakers see shutdown odds rising | Trump calls for looser rules for bank loans | Consumer bureau moves to revise payday lending rule | Trump warns China on trade deficit MORE (R-Ky.), Senate Republicans have made the case that the court vacancy should be left to the next president. They have vowed that Garland will not receive a confirmation hearing, let alone a vote.

On Tuesday, Kirk touted his willingness to meet with Garland, saying he was “leading by example” and would hopefully be able to persuade some of his more reluctant colleagues to take a meeting with the judge.

More than a dozen Republicans have suggested they are willing to meet with Garland, though most will use the sit-downs to reiterate that they believe the Scalia's seat should remain vacant until next year.

Democrats criticized Kirk’s meeting with Garland, suggesting the powwow amounted to little more than a publicity stunt.

Kirk is widely considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent up for reelection as he seeks to hold a seat in a blue state carried by Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Matt McGrath, the deputy campaign manager for Kirk's Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, said Kirk should be "putting pressure" on McConnell.

"Senator Kirk seems to expect extra credit for doing the bare minimum — in this case his job," he said.

Democrats pointed to Kirk acknowledging in a radio interview earlier this month that it was unlikely leadership would allow Garland’s nomination to move forward. 

Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called Kirk’s meeting with Garland “political posturing from a very endangered incumbent.”

With the Senate away from Washington on its spring recess, Democrats have sought to ramp up the pressure on Republicans in the court battle.

They sent a letter this week to McConnell and Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP senators eager for Romney to join them Five hurdles to a big DACA and border deal Grand jury indicts Maryland executive in Uranium One deal: report MORE (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, asking that they commit to a timeline for voting on Garland’s nomination.

Under their proposal, Garland’s confirmation hearing would start next month and he would get a vote on the Senate floor by the end of May. 

"Our constitutional role in providing advice and consent on the president's nominees is no different in our first year or sixth year as senators. And it is no different in an election year," the Democrats wrote.

Garland will return to Capitol Hill on Wednesday for meetings with Democratic Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandTrump thinks he could easily beat Sanders in 2020 match-up: report Listen: EMILY’s List upbeat about Dem House in '19 Desperate Democrats shouldn't settle for Oprah MORE (N.Y.) and Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota EMILY’s List president: Franken did 'right thing for Minnesota' Dem pledges to ask all court nominees about sexual harassment history under oath MORE (Minn.). He is also expected to meet with Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats search for 51st net neutrality vote Overnight Tech: States sue FCC over net neutrality repeal | Senate Dems reach 50 votes on measure to override repeal | Dems press Apple on phone slowdowns, kids' health | New Android malware found Overnight Regulation: Dems claim 50 votes in Senate to block net neutrality repeal | Consumer bureau takes first step to revising payday lending rule | Trump wants to loosen rules on bank loans | Pentagon, FDA to speed up military drug approvals MORE (R-Maine) next week. 

Collins, along with Kirk, is among a handful of GOP senators who say Garland should get a hearing.

"I must confess that I'm a bit perplexed by his position," Collins told a local radio station Tuesday about McConnell. "I'm not quite sure what his thinking is, but it's clearly one that he believes strongly in."

Sill, there’s no sign that GOP leaders are rethinking their strategy.

McConnell also praised Kirk during an interview earlier this month with ABC’s “This Week,” calling him a “great senator” and saying that he’s “confident he’s going to get reelected.”