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Republicans refuse to budge following Garland nomination to Supreme Court

Speaking after President Obama announced Merrick Garland as his nominee to the Supreme Court March 16, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said "the American people should have a say in the court's direction." (Video: Reuters)

Senate Republicans are not budging in their refusal to consider President Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court after the president officially nominated Merrick Garland to replace the late justice Antonin Scalia.

And the top Senate Republican — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) — said he would not meet with Garland, who is the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, when the judge comes to Capitol Hill to make the rounds on Thursday.

After Garland was nominated Wednesday morning, McConnell spoke with him by phone. In what the senator’s office described as a “more considerate” use of Garland’s time, the Kentucky Republican said having the conversation by phone avoided “more unnecessary political routines orchestrated by the White House.”

Because the Senate won’t be considering Garland’s nomination, McConnell’s office said, the majority leader “would not be holding a perfunctory meeting, but he wished Judge Garland well.”

McConnell has drawn a political red line for other Senate Republicans in instantly announcing the Senate would not even hold confirmation hearings to consider Obama’s pick to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by Scalia’s sudden death last month. His argument: American voters should decide who will choose the next justice by casting their ballots for president in the upcoming election. Neither McConnell nor other key Republicans — including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) — changed their minds after Obama announced the selection of Garland.

Inside Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland’s crucial role in the Oklahoma City bombing investigation

LARGE PHOTO: FILE - In this May 5, 1995 file photo, a large group of search and rescue crew attends a memorial service in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people _ including 19 children _ injured hundreds more and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to structures and vehicles in the downtown area. A veterans group is opposing U.S. Rep. Steve Russell's proposal to posthumously award Purple Heart medals to six service members who died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, saying the honors shouldn't be given because it was an act of domestic, not international, terrorism. The Military Order of the Purple Heart said Thursday, July 9, 2015 the criteria for receiving the honor has been "constant and clear," and only those who are killed or wounded in combat receive the honor. (AP Photo/Bill Waugh, Flle)-------INSET-------Merrick Garland listens as US President Barack Obama announces him as US Supreme Court nominee in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2016. Garland, 63, is currently Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The nomination sets the stage for an election-year showdown with Republicans who have made it clear they have no intention of holding hearings to vet any Supreme Court nominee put forward by the president. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas KammNICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images (Bill Waugh/AP)

Grassley, whose committee is charged with holding Supreme Court confirmation hearings, spoke with Garland on Wednesday afternoon.

“Chairman Grassley congratulated Judge Garland and reiterated the position of the Senate majority, that it will give the American people a voice and an opportunity this year to debate the role of the Supreme Court in our system of government,” said Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine.

The White House said Wednesday that Garland would go to the Hill on Thursday afternoon to meet with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who will meet with Garland at 2:30 p.m. and hold a press availability afterward. White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said a meeting with Grassley would happen after a two-week Senate recess that starts this week. But a spokeswoman for Grassley said no meeting has yet been confirmed.

“It isn’t about the person, it’s about the process, it’s about the principle,” Grassley told reporters after the Garland nomination. “I think we’ve laid down a principle that’s pretty sound…. It should go over to a new president.”

Grassley argued that Republican victories in 2014 were a compelling reason not to consider an Obama nominee, thus dismissing the Democrats’ argument that voters spoke when Obama won two presidential elections and that he has a popular mandate to appoint Supreme Court nominees until the end of his term.

“People spoke in the midterm election and [Obama] came out on the short end of that,” Grassley said. “In America, a democracy, you have to accept the judgment of the voters.”

[President Obama nominates Merrick Garland to Supreme Court]

The issue may be trickier for moderate Republicans who are on the ballot in swing states this November. For now, they say that the Garland nomination doesn’t mean a change of heart. But it’s unclear whether some of them would be willing to meet with Garland when he comes to the Hill on Thursday — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she will take the meeting, for instance.

“I continue to believe the Senate should not move forward with the confirmation process until the people have spoken by electing a new president,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said in a statement.

“After the election, I look forward to considering the nominee of our new president,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “Whether the American people elect a Republican or a Democrat, I will judge his or her nominee on the merits, as I always have.”

President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court. Here is what you need to know about Garland. (Video: Claritza Jimenez, Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The hard-line Republican stance has sparked a passionate outcry from Democrats, who have accused Republicans of shirking their constitutional duty to consider the president’s nominee. Democrats are expected to make the Supreme Court nomination an issue on the campaign trail, and Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nod, will likely champion a Garland confirmation. Administration officials hope that if vulnerable Republican senators face enough pressure, they may try to force leaders to reconsider their resistance.

Senate Democrats are counting an early political victory because a half dozen Republican senators haven’t completely ruled out meeting with Garland at some point and considering his nomination, according to various reports. That list includes Collins, Portman, Ayotte, Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and James Inhofe (Okla.).

“The ice is cracking. It’s going to crack further,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

Flake said Wednesday that he would meet with Garland because “I think that’s my responsibility,” adding that he “would certainly prefer a pick like Garland, rather than someone Hillary Clinton might put up” if she wins the election.

Democrats also stressed that Republicans should be happy with a moderate nominee like Garland – and some Senate Republicans suspect Obama selected him over someone younger or more liberal to pressure Republicans to move his nomination.

“I think he was really trying to pick somebody that he thought at least some Senate Republicans would accept right now,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Judiciary Committee who was one of the few Republicans to vote for Garland when he was nominated to serve on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

But the current environment is too “toxic” and “politicized,” Hatch said, to consider confirming any Supreme Court nominee before the next administration.

“It isn’t the person – Judge Garland’s a good man,” Hatch said, adding that he has “respect” for Garland and “fought for him” back in 1997. “But this is different.”

Hatch added he was willing to at least talk to Garland now that he’s Obama’s nominee – a step many other Republican senators haven’t been willing to take.

But conversations aren’t confirmations, and so far, the vast majority of Republicans have remained united behind McConnell and Grassley.

Garland does have a track record of support from some Republican senators. When he was confirmed to the federal bench in 1997, seven sitting GOP senators supported him: Collins, Hatch, Inhofe, Dan Coats (Ind.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Pat Roberts (Kan.).

Voting against Garland at the time were Grassley, McConnell, Judiciary panel member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Sens. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

At least one of the senators who backed Garland 19 years ago is refusing to dismiss his Supreme Court nomination out of hand.

“Judge Garland is a capable and accomplished jurist,” Collins said in a statement, noting that she will “look forward” to meeting with him, as she has done with all Supreme Court nominees. Collins is one of the few Republicans who has declined to join the Republican boycott.

But other former supporters are already refusing to consider Garland’s nomination as a matter of principle.

“The right thing to do is to give the American people a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” Coats said in a statement Wednesday. “The next president, with input from voters in the upcoming election, should fill the current Supreme Court vacancy.”

Garland is no stranger to long, drawn-out confirmation processes. Then-President Bill Clinton initially nominated him to the bench in 1995, but his candidacy got mired in a bitter dispute fueled by Grassley, who wanted to reduce the number of seats on the D.C. bench. It would take until March 1997 before the Senate voted to confirm Garland’s appointment, 76 to 23.

[Read about Garland’s last Senate confirmation battle]

Juliet Eilperin, Mike DeBonis, Jerry Markon and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.