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Supreme Court Fight: Quarter of Republican Senators Now Back Meetings for Merrick Garland

When President Obama first nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Senate Republicans were united in their wall of opposition — no meetings, no hearing, no vote.

And while Garland's path remains a very uphill battle, some Republicans are starting to shift their tone.

Two weeks into the nomination fight, 16 Republican senators now say they will meet with Garland — over 25 percent of the GOP caucus — according to a running count by NBC News.

That includes senators up for re-election in Blue States, such as New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte and Illinois' Mark Kirk, who will be the first Republican to actually meet with Garland when they talk Tuesday.

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The list also includes Republicans in Red States, such as Oklahoma, Alaska and Kansas.

"As a courtesy I would meet" with Garland, South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, said earlier this month, while noting that he did still oppose the nomination.

Sen. Ron Johnson, currently campaigning for re-election in Wisconsin, said he had "no problem with meeting people." But given his opposition to Garland, he added, "I'm not sure what the point will be."

At least three GOP senators also back a hearing for Garland's nomination — moderates like Illinois' Kirk and Maine's Susan Collins, plus Kansas' Senator Jerry Moran — while most of their colleagues oppose both of those steps.

According to Garland's boosters and some GOP strategists, Republicans are abandoning opposition to meetings because it could make them appear obstructionist — or even rude.

"Mitch McConell's knee-jerk response after Justice Scalia's death is a public relations debacle for the Republican Party," said former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt.

To defeat a presidential nomination, Schmidt suggested, it is usually better to "derail it slowly over time" — not announce blanket opposition up front.

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The politics of process are also evident on the 2016 trail, where John Kasich has said senators should meet with Garland.

"They ought to meet with him," John Kasich told NBC's "Meet the Press" two Sundays ago. "Show him that amount of respect."

Meetings with Garland, or even the prospect of televised hearings, which can build national interest in a nominee, are still a long ways from winning a majority on the Senate floor.

White House aides cast their current nomination strategy as a "game of inches." No one expects Republicans to swiftly reverse their general opposition - the idea is that a trickle of meetings will turn into a cascade, and pressure will build for hearings and eventually an up-or-down vote.

There is ample polling suggesting Americans view Garland positively and support the traditional process for his nomination, including hearings and a prompt vote.

It is not clear, however, that Republicans will feel pressure to go much beyond meetings. Views on the Supreme Court battle are highly polarized, and the Court is rarely a top issue for voters.

While Democrats are eager to press the issue on the campaign trail — including a sharp speech Monday by Hillary Clinton, urging Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to "do his job" — conservative activists are also pushing new litmus tests for opposing Obama's nominee.

After Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said it would be better to reject Garland after an interview and hearing, conservative activists said that approach was "outrageous."

Some on the right even suggested a primary against Moran. He then tried to address the controversy, releasing a statement that cast any confirmation hearings as an opportunity for a "thorough investigation" to "expose" Garland and "disqualify him in the eyes of Kansans and Americans."

UPDATE #1: After the original version of this article was published Tuesday, a spokesman for Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley told NBC News that on the question of whether to meet with Judge Garland, "it's fair to say that he has not made a decision one way or another."

On March 17, Grassley discussed meeting with Garland, citing a recent phone conversation with the judge and saying, "I want to make it clear that the message we told him on the phone yesterday — I will tell him face-to-face." Grassley also said it was "pretty hard to say no" to meeting with Garland, according to CNN, adding, "If I can meet with a dictator in Uganda, I can surely meet with a decent person in America."

Asked about those remarks on Tuesday, Grassley's spokesman told NBC News by email, "nothing has changed from when Sen. Grassley spoke with Judge Garland on the phone. He asked the judge to call him after recess, and he would go from there about a possible meeting."

UPDATE #2: This article listed Sen. Rubio as open to meeting with Judge Garland based on a statement he made to reporters on March 17 about the confirmation process, saying he was "happy to talk to anybody but I wouldn't change my position" opposing the nomination. On March 30, a spokesman for Sen. Rubio told msnbc he will not meet with or support Garland's nomination, saying, "Senator Rubio will not be meeting with Judge Garland. He doesn't believe the Senate should move on this nomination in the president's final year, he wouldn't support him, neither of these positions will change, and he sees no point in a meeting."

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