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Ask the White House staff about Judge Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination and they will breathlessly chronicle every meeting scheduled with senators on Capitol Hill… every possible meeting, and every hint of a meeting.
“Any hope of hearings?” White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked at a recent briefing.
“Absolutely,” the spokesman replied, no hint of doubt in his voice.
And, some administration opponents might add, no real relationship to political reality.
The Republican stonewall against Garland remains solid with just a handful of GOP senators agreeing to meet the nominee. These days even that passes for progress with the White House because many of those senators had at first said they wouldn’t even open their doors for Garland.
Undaunted, and proclaiming the Garland nomination as one of his highest priorities, President Obama took his case to the University of Chicago Law School, where the he was a professor while becoming a politician in the Illinois statehouse in the 1990’s.
“It’s good to be back,” Obama said, as he took a seat on stage, and professor David Strauss, a constitutional law expert, who has argued 18 cases before the Supreme Court, began guiding the president thru a series of questions about the Garland nomination and the Court.
"Merrick Garland is an extraordinary jurist who is indisputably qualified to serve on the highest court of the land. And nobody really argues otherwise," Obama said. "No one has plausibly made an argument that this is not the kind of person we'd want on the Supreme Court."
The president argued that the problem is the federal courts and the nomination process have become an extension of the countries divisive politics.
“Every nomination, no matter how well qualified a judge is, is a subject of contention,” Obama said, pointing out that numerous appointments to district and appellate courts he’s made also have been blocked by Congress.
He warned the court system has lost integrity and public confidence. It's not just a matter of who's occupying that ninth seat on the Supreme Court. It has to do with how we as a democracy operate and the particular authority that a court has to bring in order for our democracy to work,” Obama added.
And while the president decried how politicized the nation’s top court has become, he was also playing what he hopes is a strong political card in this high stakes standoff.
Democrats have targeted Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois as a prime candidate to unseat in November. Kirk is running neck and neck with Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have endorsed early and often.
All of that is perhaps why Kirk was the first of only two Republicans to openly call for moving the Garland nomination forward. As the president headed for Chicago, Kirk released a statement urging his GOP colleagues to meet with Garland, and saying they had a “very positive,” conversation.
Grassroots organizations backing the Garland nomination have been trying to rally Obama supporters to pressure GOP senators in several other purple states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire to drop their opposition. Democrats hope to make the Supreme Court nomination, and the decisive issues facing the court like abortion, immigration and affirmative action, decisive in the 2016 campaign.
Some Democrats, disappointed by Garland’s selection even see a dream scenario where they win the White House, and at least four Senate seats which would allow them to gain control and either a President Clinton or Sanders gets to fill the court vacancy.
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the other Republican to call for hearings and a vote for Garland along with Kirk, said after meeting the nominee “it would be ironic if the next president happens to be a Democrat and chooses someone who is far to judge Garland’s left.”
President Obama has said he will support Garland if a Democrat wins the White House.
Even before the president arrived at Chicago Law, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said repeatedly that Garland will not get a meeting with him, or a hearing or a vote, dismissed the visit.
“President Obama will fly to Chicago where he will try to convince Americans that despite his own actions while in the Senate to deny a Supreme Court nominee a vote, the Constitution somehow now requires the Senate to have a vote on his nominee no matter what,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, referring to 2006, when Mr. Obama joined an unsuccessful effort to filibuster Justice Samuel Alito’s nomination.
McConnell continues to insist "the American people" should have a say in who sits on the Supreme Court, and the next President should make that choice. While President Obama maintains the people spoke when they re-elected him 3 and a half years ago.
Meanwhile, publicly, the president insists he believes Garland will become a Supreme Court Justice well before November.
The White House points to polls showing the public generally supports Garland getting a hearing a vote. In an NBC News/Survey Monkey Supreme Court Nomination poll conducted online from March 17-18, only 36 percent of survey respondents believed Congress should delay voting until a new president is sworn in, and only a third disapprove of the Garland nomination.
Next week, as Garland tours the Hill, there will perhaps be a decisive moment when sits down for breakfast with Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Grassley has the power to schedule hearings. He has insisted he won’t.
But Grassley is also another Senator racing a re-election challenge in a state where Democrats are planning a big push.
And on Thursday, Grassley made his current position clear, saying on the Senate floor: "When I make a decision on sound principle, I am not about to flip-flop because the left has organized what they call a pressure campaign."
In Chicago, President Obama accused some members of Congress of playing pure politics. “So what you have here is, I think, a circumstance in which those in the Senate have decided that placating our base is more important than upholding their Constitutional and institutional roles in our democracy in a way that is dangerous.”
He said its acceptable for Congress to vote against Garland because of an issue or a ruling, but "what's not acceptable is not giving him a vote a hearing or a meeting."
Mr. Obama singled out Majority Leader McConnell by name at least twice. The president warned that if the obstruction continued, and if a Republican happened to win the White House in November, Democrats could very well decide to retaliate and block every judicial nomination for the next four years. Which the president said would be “a disaster for the courts, generally.”