In choosing Garland, Obama hopes he is making Republicans an offer they can’t refuse. He bypassed more diverse and clearly progressive choices likely to inspire the Democratic base in favor of a 63-year-old white man who in 2010 had been held up by Senator Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, as “a consensus nominee” for the Supreme Court. Six years later, the president called his bluff. “I think highly of Judge Garland. But his nomination doesn’t in any way change current circumstances,” Hatch said in a statement. “I remain convinced that the best way for the Senate to do its job is to conduct the confirmation process after this toxic presidential election season is over.” Hatch was one of seven Republicans currently serving in the Senate who voted to confirm Garland to his current post on the Courts of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He was a nominee of President Clinton, and the full vote was 76-23.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and the party’s leader-in-waiting, seemed to sum up Garland’s centrist credentials when he said, “If Merrick Garland can't get bipartisan support, no one can.”
While some pundits had predicted Obama would pick a more liberal choice to energize Democrats in the election, McConnell argued the opposite. Knowing that Republicans would oppose whoever he chose, McConnell suggested, Obama instead picked someone he didn’t even want to see on the Court. “It seems clear that President Obama made this nomination not with the intent of seeing the nominee confirmed but in order to politicize it for purposes of the election,” he said.
The wild card in the Supreme Court fight is—who else?—Donald Trump. By dividing Republicans so deeply in his march toward the party’s presidential nomination, Trump could give Garland a bit more hope of confirmation. Already on Wednesday, conservatives who believe the GOP is doomed with Trump leading its ticket this fall were suggesting that the Senate confirm Garland once Hillary Clinton wins the election but before she has the chance to nominate someone more liberal. For his part, Hatch told reporters he’d be open to considering Garland in a lame-duck session of Congress, but other Republicans stuck to their position that the nomination should be made by the next president. Both Clinton and Bernie Sanders issued statements supporting Garland, choosing to line up behind Obama rather than push for a more liberal nominee or the chance to pick one themselves.
The immediate goal for Democrats, however, is breaking the Republican blockade, and there were a few early cracks on Wednesday among rank-and-file lawmakers. Senator Mark Kirk, a vulnerable Illinois Republican up for reelection this year, said he would judge Garland on the merits. (Garland was born in Chicago.) Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Susan Collins of Maine, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who is also on the ballot this year, said they would at least meet with Obama’s nominee.