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WASHINGTON — Mark Kirk on Tuesday became the first Republican senator to meet with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, criticizing GOP leaders' refusal to hold confirmation hearings or a vote on the long-time federal judge and praising him as "one of the most eminent jurists in the country."
There was no sign the session would erode Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's insistence on leaving the vacancy unfilled until President Barack Obama's replacement names a selection next year. Even so, Kirk's 20-minute session with Garland provided Democrats with a visual image — and words — that they hope will pressure other Republican senators to end their blockade.
"I think when you just say I'm not going to meet with him and all, that's too closed-minded," Kirk told reporters, all but explicitly rebuking McConnell, R-Ky.
Kirk, who represents Democratic-leaning Illinois, is perhaps the most imperiled Senate Republican facing re-election in November. And when it comes to the battle over Obama's pick to fill the court vacancy, Kirk has been one of the earliest and most outspoken outliers.
He's one of just three Senate Republicans to say the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold hearings on Garland. And he's one of two GOP senators — along with Susan Collins, R-Maine — to say the full chamber should vote on the nominee, saying Tuesday he would "obviously" consider voting for him.
The death last month of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia created the court opening, and Obama is pressing to make his third appointment to the high court.
"By leading by example, I'm showing what a rational, responsible guy would do that really wants the constitutional process to go forward," Kirk said.
Kirk had an additional incentive to be hospitable to Garland: The long-time federal judge and former prosecutor is originally from Chicago.
Matt McGrath, deputy campaign manager for Kirk's November opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said the Republican had done "the bare minimum" by meeting with Garland and said Kirk should pressure McConnell to relent.
Earlier Tuesday, Collins explained the basis for her desire to see the Senate begin considering Garland's nomination by telling Maine's WGAN radio, "The first thing I did is I read the Constitution."
Collins said there was "no basis" for flatly refusing to consider any Obama pick, as McConnell did, and conceded, "Obviously the leader is not real happy with me." Arguing that a newly elected Democratic president might choose a nominee more liberal than Garland, she said of McConnell, "I'm a bit perplexed by his position."
McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart declined to comment on Kirk's and Collins' remarks.
Underscoring the stakes in the nomination fight, Kirk's meeting with Garland occurred the same day that on a 4-4 tie, the Supreme Court handed liberals a major victory. That vote upheld a lower court ruling allowing a government employees union to collect dues from non-members, a fight they all but certainly would have lost were Scalia still a justice.
That ruling prompted Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network, to warn that confirmation of Garland would create "a new liberal majority that will dominate the court's decisions for a generation."
Democrats have insisted that the Senate go through the regular confirmation process for Garland, currently chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. With most public opinion polls showing majorities favoring Senate action on Garland, Democrats' goal is to force GOP senators to buckle under pressure or make some facing re-election this fall pay the price on Election Day.
At least 14 Senate Republicans have said they'd be willing to meet with Garland, though many have said they would tell him that he won't get a vote.
Earlier this month, Kirk said on a Chicago radio program that the Senate should "man up and cast a vote."
Garland has met with seven Democratic senators and plans to meet Wednesday with two more, Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.