WASHINGTON — The Democratic campaign to pressure Senate Republicans to take up the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland resumed on Capitol Hill Monday, but a top GOP senator agreed to meet with him.
Late Monday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley spoke with Garland and invited him to meet soon over breakfast, even though the senator still opposes scheduling a hearing for the judge, his staff said.
The move is a rare one for Senate Republicans, but not unexpected, as Grassley said in March he would be willing to explain to Garland in-person why he opposes a vote on his nomination.
“If I can meet with a dictator in Uganda, I can surely meet with a decent person in America,” Grassley had said. “I want to make it clear that the message we told him on the phone yesterday — I will tell him face-to-face.”
The move comes as many GOP senators were targeted heavily in their home states during the spring recess. As was the case over the break — when activists protested at his offices and public events in Iowa — Grassley was the Democrats’ top target upon returning. But the veteran lawmaker known for his independence is standing firmly with his leadership to block action on Garland.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who believes Grassley could under enough pressure flip his position, blamed the Iowan also for slowing down confirmations of lower court judges.
“After they’ve crippled the judiciary, the Republican leader and Chairman Grassley want to hand it over to Donald Trump,” Reid, D-Nevada, said during a floor speech. “That would be disastrous.”
But the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, told CNN his caucus is sticking with its decision to deny Garland a confirmation hearing and vote so that the next president can choose a nominee.
“Frankly, I haven’t heard anything over the course of the recess to cause me to question it or change my mind. I think it’s the right decision and we’re going to stick with it,” Cornyn said.
In a sign that Republicans are trying to move on from the high-profile and contentious Garland fight, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, didn’t even mention the simmering controversy when he opened the floor for the first time in two weeks. Instead McConnell praised Grassley’s handing of recent bills combating opioid abuse, modern slavery and trade secrets — the last of which passed easily in a late afternoon vote.
McConnell defended Grassley, who is running in a potentially tight re-election race for his seventh term, as a “highly effective legislator” and “hard worker.”
Garland returns to Capitol Hill Tuesday to continue his courtesy calls with senators, including GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and John Boozman of Arkansas. As has been customary with all of the one-on-one meetings to date, Collins — one of only two Republicans calling for confirmation hearings and a vote on the judge — will invite journalists in for a photo opportunity of her seated with Garland. She then she will meet with reporters afterward.
But Boozman, who is running for re-election and who drew the ire of conservative interest groups for his decision to meet with Garland, will refuse to allow that photo to be taken. He won’t invite reporters in and won’t speak to them afterward. An aide explained cameras will be banned because it’s a private meeting during which the senator will personally tell the judge that the nomination should wait until a new president is inaugurated next year.
Earlier Monday, before Boozman’s staff announced there would no press coverage of the meeting, the group Freedom Works issued a statement arguing Boozman’s meeting with Garland could send the wrong signal that the senator might be open to eventually confirming the judge.
“It makes no sense. This is not the time for squeamishness or timidity. Surrendering to this president on the Supreme Court could create more anger and alienate conservative grassroots activists, the very people Republicans count on to win elections,” the statement said.
Garland will also meet Tuesday with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
Shaheen’s GOP counterpart in her state, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a vulnerable moderate who is in a tight re-election run, announced she will meet with Garland next week. Like Boozman, she will use the meeting to tell Garland the nomination should wait.
“This is a lifetime appointment that will have a significant impact on our country for decades to come,” the first-term senator said. “I will meet with the President’s nominee out of courtesy and respect, and I also plan to explain my view that the people should have a voice in this important nomination through their votes in November.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, a member of the Judiciary Committee will also meet with Garland next week. Flake opposes confirming a nominee now.
Late Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, was scheduled to lead a conference call with progressive activists across the country “to strategize about what it’s going to take to break the GOP blockade of the Supreme Court,” according to an email invitation to the event.
On Tuesday, members of ProgressOhio, a liberal group, will hold a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court to call on Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is running for re-election in a key swing state, to “do your job,” which has been the rallying cry of Democrats.
— CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.