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 McConnellZika funding fight throws wrench in health lobbyists’ plans Shutdown risk grows over Flint Senate poised to override Obama veto 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 ReidShutdown risk grows over Flint Overnight Finance: Four days left to avert shutdown | Conservative group bucks spending bill | Lawmakers play catch-up on smartphone banking Reid blasts GOP senator over Flint 'hostage' comments 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 KirkSenate rivals gear up for debates The Trail 2016: Trump seizes on Charlotte violence Iran president hints at future prisoner swaps, cash settlements with US MORE (Ill.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanDems kill more ads in Ohio Senate rivals gear up for debates Funding bill includes million for opioid crisis MORE (Ohio) and Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteSenate rivals gear up for debates WATCH LIVE: Warren campaigns for Clinton in NH Green group endorses in key Senate races 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 Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Dem senator won't back spending bill without visa reforms Top GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program 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 GrassleyThe Trail 2016: Fight night Clinton, Trump tied in Iowa, Grassley leads in Senate race Senate rivals gear up for debates 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 CollinsSwing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws Reid knocks GOP on gun 'terror loophole' after attacks GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase 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 HatchInternet companies dominate tech lobbying Senate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners Overnight Tech: GOP says internet fight isn't over | EU chief defends Apple tax ruling | Feds roll out self-driving car guidelines | Netflix's China worries 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 JohnsonSenate rivals gear up for debates The Trail 2016: Trump seizes on Charlotte violence The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 CoatsIndiana Senate race tightens as Republicans take on Bayh Conservative group targets Evan Bayh on ObamaCare George W. Bush to headline Rubio fundraiser MORE (Ind.), Thad CochranThad CochranMomentum builds for Clyburn poverty plan 'Hardball' Pentagon memo creates firestorm Insiders dominate year of the outsider MORE (Miss.), Collins, James InhofeJames InhofeShutdown risk grows over Flint Dem slams House waterways bill over splash parks provision Democrats blast GOP for ‘sabotaging’ House waterways bill MORE (Okla.), John McCainJohn McCainPundits react: Clinton won first debate Overnight Defense: Debate night is here | Senate sets vote on 9/11 veto override | Kerry, McCain spar over Syria Kerry fires back at McCain: I'm not 'delusional' MORE (Ariz.) and Pat RobertsPat RobertsSenate panel approves pension rescue for coal miners Congress set for Saudi showdown with Obama GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase 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 BluntSenate rivals gear up for debates Super PAC hits Dem Senate candidate with ad in tightening Missouri race The Trail 2016: Presidential politics and policing 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.