By Mike Lillis - 03/19/16 04:57 PM EDT
Liberal House Democrats are holding their fire on President Obama's choice of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.
Many liberals on and off Capitol Hill had pushed the president to pick a minority nominee –– specifically a black woman, which would be an historic first –– and some liberal advocacy groups quickly condemned Obama's choice of an older white man with a centrist track record.
It's a sign that Democrats appreciate the tactical acumen behind the Garland pick, even if they are not especially enamored of the judge himself.
The Democrats' messaging unity marks a sharp contrast to the divisions across the aisle, where Republicans are split over whether they should even meet with Garland –– or consider voting on him this year.
"Obama has done his duty. He's chosen the best that, in his opinion, he could find –– someone with impeccable credentials –– and Republicans have chosen to ignore him," Rep. G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldCongressional Black Caucus calls for peace after Baton Rouge Black caucus issues call to action House erupts as GOP tries to halt Dems' sit-in MORE (D-N.C.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said Thursday. "They're not even giving the man an opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with them."
Butterfield emphasized that he favors more diversity than Garland represents, but also defended Obama for having to navigate a political minefield.
"I would have preferred an African American female to be nominated. … That has been the position of the Congressional Black Caucus. That is a demographic that is not represented on the court –– never has been –– and certainly … Justice Clarence Thomas does not represent the African American viewpoint," Butterfield said. "[But] he chose the best and the most non-controversial name that he could identify, and put it forward."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a former CBC chairwoman and another proponent of more diversity on the Court, was similarly cautious.
"The president … has a responsibility and duty to put forth whomever he or she deems as the candidate they want to put forward. And I think that the big issue right now is to get the Senate to do its job –– that's the most important thing," Lee told The Hill. "I'm not commenting on any other aspect of this, other than the Senate needs to do its job, and they need to move forward with the process."
The comments suggest that liberal Democrats have made the strategic decision to withhold criticisms of Obama's choice and instead direct the public spotlight onto the Republicans, who are at odds over whether to consider Garland at any point this year.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellProgressive group changes tone on Kaine Trump hits Kaine on TPP: He supports a 'job killer' Clinton maps out first 100 days MORE (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders have insisted the task should fall to the next president in order to give voters "a voice" in replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month at age 79. Those lawmakers are refusing even the customary meeting with the president's nominee.
But some GOP senators have broken ranks, suggesting they're open to sitting down with Garland. And at least one –– Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkNBA pulls All-Star Game from NC over bathroom law GOP groups scale back support for Sen. Johnson Top GOP senator: Trump will have little effect on Senate races MORE (R-Ill.), who faces a tough reelection this year –– is calling for a vote.
"Your whole job is to either say yes or no and explain why," Kirk said Friday on “The Big John Howell Show” on Chicago's WLS-AM station.
Garland, the head of the Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit, is widely respected on both sides of the aisle, and Obama's decision appears, at least in part, designed to put the Republicans in the toughest possible spot in defending their blockade.
Still, some liberal group are citing some of Garland's more centrist rulings and warning that Obama risks discouraging the liberal Democratic base the party is trying to energize ahead of November.
Charles Chamberlain, head of Democracy for America, said the choice "will make it harder to excite grassroots progressives about the slog ahead."
"It's deeply disappointing that President Obama failed to use this opportunity to add the voice of another progressive woman of color to the Supreme Court, and instead put forward a nominee seemingly designed to appease intransigent Republicans rather than inspire the grassroots he'll need to get that nominee through the Senate gauntlet," Chamberlain said in a statement.
Many liberals are also hammering the notion of voting on Garland in the lame duck session, as some Republicans have suggested. If GOP leaders want voters to have their voice, the liberals say, then they should accept the possibility that a Democratic president could nominate someone to the left of Garland next year.
"If a Merrick Garland nomination makes sense at all, which is disputable, it only makes sense at this exact moment in time," Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Friday in an email. "It would be nonsensical for a new Democratic president to nominate him and equally nonsensical to pass Garland in a lame duck Congress if a Democrat wins the White House."
Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersDem party chief won't speak at convention Sanders aide: 'Someone needs to be held accountable' for DNC emails Democrats vote to overhaul superdelegate system MORE, the Democratic presidential hopeful, said this week that's he's ready to oblige advocates like Green. The Vermont Independent is pushing the GOP to seat Garland on the High Court this year. But he's also emphasizing that, if he were to win the White House in November, he would press Obama to retract Garland's name so he himself could pick a more liberal nominee.
"I'm 100 percent prepared to support Judge Garland. I think he's clearly very knowledgeable and can serve ably on the Supreme Court," Sanders told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Thursday. "But between you and me, I think there are some more progressive judges out there."
Such a progressive would be music to the ears of the leaders of the Black Caucus and other liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill.
"We need more diversity on the court," Butterfield said.