President Obama sought Wednesday to reshape the clash over presidential power that has engulfed the vacancy on the Supreme Court, nominating a federal judge with a centrist reputation, Merrick Garland, and all but daring Republicans to hold fast to their refusal to consider his choice.
Obama held up his pick of the 63-year-old Garland as an opportunity for Republicans to reverse course and avoid making the judicial system “an extension of our divided politics.”
“I said I would take this process seriously — and I did,” Obama said as he stood alongside Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “At a time when our politics are so polarized, at a time when norms and customs of political rhetoric and courtesy and comity are so often treated like they're disposable — this is precisely the time when we should play it straight.”
The president's Rose Garden announcement amounted to a political challenge to Republicans just as they appear to be grappling with the consequences of their own stalwart opposition to Obama throughout his presidency with the surprising rise of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump. Obama tried to frame his decision as an effort to look past election-year politics and create an implicit contrast with Republicans' stonewalling.
He praised Garland as the kind of candidate he had promised to choose: one with sterling credentials and a widely respected temperament.
Garland is known as “one of America's sharpest legal minds” and “brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, evenhandedness and excellence,” Obama said.
“These qualities and his long commitment to public service have earned him the respect and admiration from leaders from both sides of the aisle,” he added.
Republican leaders, though, held firm to the position they first claimed just hours after the death last month of Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative: that they wouldn't even meet with the nominee, insisting Obama doesn't have the mandate so close to the end of his term to be making such a consequential move, and preferring instead to leave the choice to Obama's successor.
“It's about a principle and not a person,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor of the Senate moments after Obama and Garland left the White House Rose Garden. “It seems President Obama made this nomination not with the intent of seeing a nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize it for the purposes of the election.”
White House officials said Obama's choice was driven by a desire to pick the most qualified candidate, unaffected by the politics of an election year that undergirded McConnell's pledge.
“It's fair to say that there's simply nobody better qualified,” said White House counsel Neil Eggleston, who helped lead the vetting process.
Garland was a leading contender for the last Supreme Court vacancy, in 2010, and an early favorite in part because of the bipartisan support he won when the Senate confirmed him to his current post.
Several longtime GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have publicly lobbied for Garland's selection in the past, underscoring the political bind the president's choice puts them in. Seven current Republican senators voted to confirm Garland to the federal bench in 1997.
White House officials believe they stand a chance of getting a confirmation hearing for Garland in the Senate despite McConnell's opposition and pointed to some Republicans appearing to break ranks by opening the door to at least meeting with Garland.
The White House lobbying effort began as soon as Garland left the Rose Garden. He started calling senators right away and will go to Capitol Hill to meet them — at least those willing to invite him in — on Thursday.
Garland has experienced this type of standoff before. President Clinton nominated him to a federal judgeship in 1995, but he wasn't confirmed until two years later, after the Democrat's reelection.
Obama's announcement came a day after he challenged politicians in both parties to examine what role they have played in helping to give rise to a “vicious atmosphere in our politics.” He seemed to be appealing to Republican senators who have tried to distance themselves from Trump amid concerns that his inflammatory rhetoric could hurt their own chances for reelection and cost the party its control of the Senate.
Democrats say Republicans are instead enabling Trump to potentially choose the court nominee.
“Senate Republicans who continue their Supreme Court obstruction are saying unequivocally that they want Donald Trump to appoint the next Supreme Court justice,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference.
The discomfort was visible as several Republican senators dashed through the halls of the Capitol on Wednesday, refusing to comment on the nomination, while others — particularly those up for reelection — eased off their unequivocal refusal to consider Obama's nominee.
As many as six GOP senators indicated they might be willing to meet with Garland, said Democratic aides keeping a tally — more than just the one or two before Trump's decisive victories in Tuesday's primaries.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was among many senators whom Obama called, and she said Wednesday she was “happy” to meet with the nominee and believed it would be best for the Senate to hold hearings and vote.
Even though Collins voted to confirm Garland for the D.C. Circuit Court in 1997, her approval is not guaranteed, she said, also raising doubts about Republicans' position.
They risk seeing a more liberal Supreme Court justice seated if Hillary Clinton wins the presidential election and Democrats retake the Senate majority, she said, noting: “That certainly would be an ironic outcome.”
Two senators in tough reelection campaigns, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Rob Portman of Ohio, said that they would give the nominee the courtesy of a meeting but that their positions were unlikely to change.
Republican strategists said they doubted voters would cast ballots only on the Supreme Court issue, and remained confident GOP senators could run on their record of getting the Senate working again.
Democrats who cheered Garland's selection said there was greater potency in showcasing Republicans' reflexive opposition to the president than if Obama had opted for a nominee who would more clearly tip the court's ideological balance or rally the Democratic base heading into the fall.
“Garland is so unquestionably qualified that the Republican opposition just got more politically untenable,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior White House advisor who helped shepherd Obama's first two nominees, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, to confirmation.
Both parties and their allies have been preparing for a public lobbying campaign, which will ramp up as senators leave Thursday for a two-week recess.
Whether Obama's third Supreme Court pick will be confirmed depends almost entirely on how much pressure Republicans can withstand from the left and the evolving opinions of swing and independent voters before the November election.
“There are a handful of Republican senators in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New Hampshire who cannot win unless they get some folks who voted for Obama in 2012,” Pfeiffer said. “That hard task is about to get impossible.”
Sen. Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican seeking reelection in Illinois, reiterated his break with his party's plan and his “commitment to represent the people of Illinois in an independent and thoughtful manner, free from the partisanship and political rancor that too often consumes Washington.”
“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.
The president also appears to be weighing his own legacy. A fresh illustration of GOP intransigence, especially on a compromise choice like Garland, highlights the deep-seated opposition that Obama faces and sees as an important theme of his presidency.
He repeatedly referred to the seriousness of the task before him and Republicans to fulfill their constitutional roles. “I hope they're fair. That's all,” he said.
Garland, Obama said, has exemplified the kind of approach he wants Republicans to join him in taking.
“He's shown a rare ability to bring together odd couples, assemble unlikely coalitions, persuade colleagues with wide-ranging judicial philosophies to sign on to his opinions,” Obama said.
“He is the right man for the job. He deserves to be confirmed.”
Times staff writer Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.