Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkGOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood The Hill's 12:30 Report Trump, judges on collision course 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."
"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 McConnellMitch McConnellThough flawed, complex Medicaid block grants have fighting chance Sanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress McConnell: Trump's speech should be 'tweet free' 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyGOP senator grilled over DeVos vote during town hall Big Pharma must address high drug prices ObamaCare fix hinges on Medicaid clash in Senate 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 GillibrandSanders, not Trump, is the real working-class hero Dem senator predicts Gorsuch will be confirmed A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (N.Y.) and Al FrankenAl FrankenDeVos: 'My job isn’t to win a popularity contest with the media' Kentucky Dem lawmaker questions Trump's mental health Americans should get used to pop culture blending with politics MORE (Minn.). He is also expected to meet with Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGOP lawmaker at town hall calls on Trump to release his tax returns GOP senator won't vote to defund Planned Parenthood GOP senator grilled over DeVos vote during town hall 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.”