Court war begins with Obama pick

Getty Images

President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, launching an election-year fight with Republicans that will reverberate in battleground states across the country.

Senate Republicans immediately ruled out any action on Garland, the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, who has nearly 20 years of experience on the bench and a reputation as a moderate.

Obama chose Garland, one of three finalists for the job, to make it tougher for Republicans to stick to their position that no nominee from the president will receive hearings or votes in the 236 days before Americans elect a new president.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellHillary's ObamaCare problem In House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable McConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ MORE (R-Ky.), who within hours of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death said there would be no vote this year on his replacement, said the naming of Obama’s nominee made no difference.

“The American people may well elect a president who decides to nominate Judge Garland for Senate consideration,” McConnell said from the Senate floor. “The next president may also nominate somebody very different. Either way, our view is this: Give the people a voice in filling this vacancy.”

Obama’s nomination of Garland appeared to unify Democrats, who rallied around their already well-worn argument that Republicans should do their job and consider the nomination.

It’s an argument that will be on a continuous loop as the party seeks to use the court fight against vulnerable Republicans. Democrats need to net at least four seats and the White House to take back the Senate majority — a threshold they see as well within their reach.

“The Senate should do its constitutional duty and provide this good man with a fair and open confirmation process. The American people expect nothing less,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidHillary's ObamaCare problem Sanders tests Wasserman Schultz Nearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo MORE (Nev.) said in a statement.

Senate Republicans weren’t quite as unified as Democrats on Wednesday, as seven GOP senators said they were willing to consider a meeting with Garland.

Those senators include Mark KirkMark KirkFunding boost for TSA sails through committee GOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo VA chief 'deeply' regrets if Disney comment offended vets MORE (Ill.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanJuan Williams: Electoral map looks grim for Trump McConnell touts 'Senate squad' in Wes Anderson-style video Liberal super-PAC hits Johnson for supporting Trump MORE (Ohio) and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenators to Obama: Make 'timely' call on Afghan troops levels Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return Senate GOP ties Iran sanctions fight to defense bill MORE (N.H.), who are each facing tough reelection races.

“The Senate’s constitutionally defined role to provide advice and consent is as important as the president’s role in proposing a nominee, and I will assess Judge Merrick Garland based on his record and qualifications,” Kirk said in a statement.

Portman and Ayotte said their meetings were a courtesy and that they backed McConnell’s move to withhold hearings for an Obama nominee.

“I’m not going to change my position, but I meet with people all the time,” Portman told The Hill. “It would be a meeting in which I explain my position and why I feel the way that I do.”

“He may view it as a waste of time,” he added of Garland.

McConnell told Garland directly in a phone call that he will not meet with him and that the nominee should not expect a hearing.

“The leader reiterated his position that the American people will have a voice in this vacancy and that the Senate will appropriately revisit the matter when it considers the qualifications of the person the next president nominates,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.

Garland will meet Thursday with Reid and Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyOvernight Cybersecurity: Guccifer plea deal raises questions in Clinton probe Senate panel delays email privacy vote amid concerns Senate amendments could sink email privacy compromise MORE (D-Vt.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He will meet after the Senate’s recess with the panel’s chairman, Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySenate fight brews over Afghan visas Clinton email headache is about to get worse Ten senators ask FCC to delay box plan MORE (R-Iowa).

Grassley, whom Democrats have targeted over his stance on a Supreme Court nominee, said he spoke with Garland to offer his congratulations. At the meeting, he said he would explain to Garland why a vote on confirming a new justice should wait until after the election.

“A lifetime appointment that could dramatically impact individual freedoms and change the direction of the court for at least a generation is too important to get bogged down in politics. The American people shouldn’t be denied a voice,” Grassley said in an earlier statement.

Republicans said Democrats shouldn’t hold their breath if they expect ­McConnell to back down.

“I don’t see the majority leader changing his mind on this issue,” said Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsGOP lawmaker: 'Republicans were wrong’ to block Garland Senate passes broad spending bill with .1B in Zika funds Senators unveil bill to overhaul apprenticeship programs MORE, a Maine centrist who said she would meet with Garland and opposes the decision to not hold hearings.

“He believes strongly that this should be a decision made by the next president,” she said. “I don’t agree with that decision but I respect it.”

Obama is coordinating strategy on the court fight closely with Senate Democrats.

He told Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee about his pick in a conference call before he announced it publicly.

The president also consulted with both Democrats and Republicans on the panel before selecting Garland.

Some Republicans are wavering over whether to invite Garland to their offices. They know Democrats will try to leverage the meetings into hearings, yet they don’t want to appear obstructionist or simply rude.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchTen senators ask FCC to delay box plan An affordable housing solution both parties can get behind Puerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate MORE (R-Utah), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said he had not yet decided on whether to meet with Garland, as did Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonClinton emails dominate Sunday shows GOP senator: Did Clinton email setup play a role in Russian invasions? Sunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on MORE (R-Wis.), who faces a tough reelection fight in November.

Obama tried to pressure Hatch directly by quoting his statement in support of Garland in 1997.

“Back then he said, ‘In all honesty, I would like to see one person come to this floor and say one reason why Merrick Garland does not deserve this position,’ ” Obama said in a Rose Garden ceremony with Garland.

Hatch later in the day floated the idea of holding confirmation hearings and a vote in the lame-duck session between the election and the start of the new Congress.

“It’s the toxicity of this environment. I’m tired of the Supreme Court being politicized. I think we’ve diminished the court over the years. The only way to get out of that is to get out of this toxic environment and have the matter decided then,” Hatch said.

If Republicans won the presidency, however, they almost would certainly not move Garland in the December wrap-up session.

Along with Hatch, Republican Sens. Dan CoatsDan CoatsDems to GOP: Cancel Memorial Day break GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' Overnight Defense: House panel unveils 5B defense spending bill MORE (Ind.), Thad CochranThad CochranSenate panel passes 4.5B defense bill Senate votes to block USDA catfish inspections GOP senators: Obama bathroom guidance is 'not appropriate' MORE (Miss.), Collins, James InhofeJames InhofePaul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate GOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (Okla.), John McCainJohn McCainSenate fight brews over Afghan visas Trump: Illegal immigrants treated better than veterans Trump should apologize to heroic POWs MORE (Ariz.) and Pat RobertsPat RobertsGOP senators propose sending ISIS fighters to Gitmo Passing the Kelsey Smith Act will help law enforcement save lives Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (Kan.) voted for Garland nearly 10 years ago.

Outside groups at both ends of the political spectrum are preparing massive public relations blitzes over the next several weeks.

The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group, announced in a conference call Wednesday the launch of a $2 million advertising campaign opposing Garland. It will focus on Democrats in conservative-leaning or swing states and press them on Garland’s controversial decisions on gun control and environmental regulation.

Liberal groups, meanwhile, are hammering vulnerable Republicans for blocking him. Polls show independents in several battleground states say the court vacancy should be filled this year.  

Lindsay Jakows, the New Hampshire campaign organizer for People for the American Way, said, “Garland deserves a fair consideration, and Sen. Ayotte should call on her party leadership to make sure that’s what he receives.”

Democratic political action committee End Citizens United, which takes its name in reference to the landmark Supreme Court ruling that loosened campaign finance regulations, plans to run ads targeting Grassley, Ayotte and Sen. Roy BluntRoy BluntSenators hope for deal soon on mental health bill Cruz: VA secretary 'should resign' Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (R-Mo.), a member of the GOP leadership who is up for reelection.

The selection of Garland struck outside liberal groups largely by surprise. Although he’s not as liberal as some of them might prefer under different circumstances, they’re unified behind the effort to pressure Republicans to hold hearings and a vote.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said he had initially heard Obama would tap someone else, but still applauded the pick.

“He’s a great judge. I had not heard Merrick is going to be appointed,” he said. “Merrick Garland’s a great judge, and we would support him.”

Jordain Carney and Mark Hensch contributed.