The partisan tug-of-war over a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy will overshadow Congress when the Senate gets back to work Monday after a two-week recess.
The battle simmered last week even as Capitol Hill was idle. Three senators journeyed to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland. Most notable was Mark Kirk, the first – and so far only – Republican to sit down with federal appellate judge.
“As the president put forward Judge Garland, we should give him advice and consent,” said Kirk, who is running for re-election in Democratic-leaning Illinois. “We need rational, adult, open-minded consideration of the constitutional process.”
While more than a dozen other Republicans say they are willing to meet with Garland, only two are urging Senate consideration of the nomination. A third, Jerry Moran, called for hearings, then reversed himself two days later.
In initially breaking ranks with fellow-Republicans, Moran was pilloried by conservatives who form the base of his party. The episode illustrates the stakes involved for activists across the political spectrum in filling the seat left open by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, meets with President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, at left, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 29, 2016.
Democrats, meanwhile, stand united behind Garland.
"He is someone who is highly qualified,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who met Wednesday with Garland. “And I think it is the obligation of the Senate to not only have a hearing, but to vote on his nomination.”
“We’re confirming, or deciding whether to confirm a member if the Supreme Court,” said Democrat Al Franken. “The Supreme Court should not be political.”
But Republicans control the Senate. Unless they budge, Garland will remain in limbo.
“Let’s let the American people decide,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell before the recess. “The Senate will appropriately revisit the matter when it considers the qualifications of the nominee the next president nominates, whoever that might be.”
The high court’s make-up and ideological center of gravity are issues in the presidential contest.
“If Hillary [Clinton] is the next president, the Supreme Court is lost for a generation, and the Bill of Rights is lost,” said Republican contender Ted Cruz at a recent campaign stop.
Opinion polls show majority backing for full Senate consideration of Garland. Democrats believe Republicans will bow to the public’s will or suffer at the ballot box in November. Whatever the political calculations, the vast majority of Republican senators are holding firm.