The first Republican senator to meet with President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee said Tuesday that GOP colleagues who are refusing to meet with Merrick B. Garland are “too closed-minded” and that he could possibly vote to confirm Garland.
Mark Kirk of Illinois made the comments while seated next to Garland in his Capitol Hill office while facing a scrum of several dozen reporters, who were briefly invited inside as the two men began a 25-minute meeting.
Garland did not respond to questions, while Kirk said he was “leading by example” by meeting with the appeals court judge.
“I’m showing what a rational, responsible guy would do who really wants the constitutional process to go forward,” he said, adding that there is a need for “a rational, adult, open-minded consideration of the constitutional process.”
Pressed on whether his colleagues who are refusing to consider Garland’s nomination are being open-minded and rational, he said: “I think when you just say, ‘I’m not going to meet with him,’ that’s too closed-minded.”
Kirk is the only Republican to have called for an up-or-down vote on Garland before the November elections. He is one of the most ideologically moderate Republican senators and faces a difficult reelection this year is what is a traditionally Democratic state.
Compounding Kirk’s dilemma are Garland’s Illinois roots, having grown up in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood.
The meeting with Kirk is the first in a series of GOP sitdowns that Democrats hope will begin weakening Senate Republicans’ resolve to block Garland’s confirmation. Led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), most Senate Republicans have said they are opposed to confirmation hearings and a vote on Garland’s nomination before November, arguing that voters should be able to influence the identity of the next Supreme Court justice.
Kirk said Tuesday that Garland’s nomination “shouldn’t just be for nothing.”
“We should have a long discussion about key issues before the court,” Kirk said, noting that he was particularly interested in discussing with Garland to what extent federal racketeering laws might be used to dismantle the illegal drug industry.
After the meeting, he tweeted:
But while Democrats are pleased that Kirk has chosen to break with McConnell and most of his Republican colleagues, they are loath to allow him any credit for taking that stand.
A spokesman for Kirk’s Democratic Senate opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, said Kirk “seems to expect extra credit for doing the bare minimum” and has “done absolutely nothing in the meantime that would make McConnell feel the least bit inconvenienced for his obstruction.”
Without a direct call on McConnell to hold hearings and an up-or-down vote, Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath said, “Illinois families have every right to question Kirk’s sincerity and whether this is more election year posturing from a vulnerable candidate.”
Democrats this week attempted to increase the pressure to consider Garland by proposing an April timeline for hearings and a May vote on the Senate floor, based on the timing of actions taken on recent Supreme Court nominees.
Kirk has joined GOP colleagues Susan Collins (Maine) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) in calling for confirmation hearings. About a dozen other GOP senators have said they would meet with Garland as a courtesy, but those senators insist such a meeting wouldn’t affect their decision to refuse formal hearings or votes.
After Kirk declared in a radio interview earlier this month that senators should “just man up and cast a vote,” McConnell addressed the criticism in an ABC News “This Week” interview: “Mark Kirk is a great senator. He’s running this year in Illinois. I’m confident he’s going to get reelected. But the schedule in the Senate is set by the majority leader. And most of my members are very comfortable with letting the American people make this decision by electing the next president who will fill this vacancy next year.”
Collins — who, like Kirk, is a moderate — addressed Garland’s nomination Monday in a morning interview on WGAN radio in Portland, Maine, in which she declared herself “a bit perplexed” by McConnell’s position.
“The first thing I did is, I read the Constitution,” she said. “It just seemed to me that there was no basis for saying that for no matter who the president nominates that we were not going to consider that individual.”
“I know Senator McConnell cares deeply about the balance of the court,” Collins added. “If the next president is a Democrat, then the balance could be tipped way farther than Judge Garland based on what I know about him so far.”
And if Republican front-runner Donald Trump were to win the presidency, she said, “Who knows who his nominee would be? He’s rather unpredictable.”
Update, 6:41 p.m.: The article originally listed Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) as favoring hearings on Garland, based on a Feb. 17 report in the Alaska Dispatch News in which she was quoted as saying, “I do believe that the nominee should get a hearing.” Her office says Murkowski now “respects the decision of the Chair and members of the Judiciary Committee not to hold hearings on the nominee.”