MARCH 17, 2016 4:43 PM
BY KATHLEEN HENNESSEY AND ALAN FRAM
It was Day One for the traditional courtesy calls to senators, but there's not much about Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination that has adhered to tradition — or courtesy.
A day after his selection set the battle lines in a major fight over the court, President Barack Obama's choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia met only with Democratic leaders on Thursday — steering clear of the Republican leader who has vowed the Senate will ignore Garland's nomination and wait for the next president to fill the seat.
For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Capitol visit was a stunt "orchestrated" by the White House, his spokesman said. But for Democrats, it was just the opening salvo in a public campaign to make Garland, a mild-mannered jurist with sterling credentials, the best-known victim of Republican obstruction and a household name in every election battleground state.
Garland met with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Said Leahy: "I talked to him about where the hurdles are, and I talked to him about what I thought would happen if we actually follow the oath that we've all taken to uphold the Constitution."
Outside, Garland braved a throng of reporters and cameras but said nothing.
Before the Capitol Hill visit, more than a dozen Senate Democrats stood in front of the Supreme Court, using the telegenic backdrop to underscore their calls for Republicans to give Garland a hearing. Democrats cited polling showing public support for Senate consideration of the nomination, and eagerly linked the court fight to Donald Trump — the volatile front-runner for the GOP nomination and a source of embarrassment for the Republican establishment.
"If Republicans stand in the way and refuse to do their job, it will only be because they want Donald Trump to pick the next nominee," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
The success of the Democrats' plans hinge in part on rallying their grass roots to the cause — a task complicated by Obama's nomination of a moderate with little public record on many issues valued by the progressive wing of the party. Obama on Thursday tried to win over key interest groups and activists, holding a conference call to explain "that this is a high priority of his, and that he hopes that this would be a priority that people all across the country would share," spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Liberal and labor groups planned events next week, when the Senate is out of session and senators are back home, pressuring Republicans on their home turf. The events include teachers holding rallies in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Lima, Ohio, aimed at Sen. Rob Portman; union members mobilizing in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and targeting Sen. Patrick Toomey, and activists attending town hall and other Iowa re-election events staged by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
Republicans prepared their defense.
One Nation — run by Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff and the head the GOP-aligned American Crossroads super PAC — was beginning 10 days of television advertising on Friday in Des Moines, Iowa, aimed at supporting Grassley, a key opponent of confirming an Obama nominee.
The ad says an Obama appointment to the court could "radically transform" laws governing land ownership, gun rights and religious freedom and says, "Tell Senator Grassley, keep fighting for the right of Iowans to decide the Supreme Court's future."
Republicans were mindful of the risks of closing their doors to this nominee, while past Supreme Court candidates had paid visits shortly after their nomination with little controversy.
McConnell tried to pre-empt the spectacle by talking with Garland by phone Wednesday. He wished him well, his office said. Grassley, who also talked to Garland, agreed to meet with him — just not immediately.
A few GOP senators suggested they were ready.
"I meet with anybody, and that would include him," said Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Flake said if a Democrat were elected president in November, he would want the Senate to consider Garland's nomination during a postelection, lame duck session because "between him and somebody that a President Clinton might nominate, I think the choice is clear."
Flake's comment showed how Obama and the leading Democratic presidential contender, Hillary Clinton, have had a good cop-bad cop effect on some Republicans, who consider Clinton likely to make a more liberal selection should she enter the White House.
Still, Garland's confirmation remains an uphill climb. One reason for the intense combat over Scalia's replacement is that Garland would tilt the court's 4-4 balance in the liberal direction.