The Senate Is Unmoved

Despite some world-class spin from the White House, Merrick Garland’s confirmation isn’t going anywhere.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senators are back from spring break, tanned, rested, and ready to spend the next few months working feverishly to accomplish as little as humanly possible—especially on the matter of poor Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Listening to the White House, one might get the impression that Republican members are starting to waffle on Garland as Democrats and pro-confirmation forces hammer them for refusing to, as the Twitter meme goes, #doyourjob. In his Monday briefing this week, Press Secretary Josh Earnest touted the “important progress” made in shaming GOP obstructionists. Their unconstitutional shenanigans are “even more difficult to defend when the only reason you’re refusing to take that vote is because you’re taking orders from the Republican leader,” he charged. “That’s why we’ve seen such a large number of Republican senators come forward and indicate that they are, in fact, prepared to meet with the president’s nominee.” Better yet, there has been “a sea change when it comes to actual meetings” with Garland, said Earnest, pointing to the judge’s Tuesday huddles with Susan Collins and John Boozman and an earlier one with Mark Kirk. Then of course, there are the brave few who have gone so far as to voice support for hearings (Collins, Jerry Moran) or even an up-or-down vote (Kirk). All of this, asserted Earnest, has put the majority on what Republican Whip John Cornyn has called the “slippery slope” to confirmation.

Now that is some impressive spin. I realize Earnest is a well-compensated PR master, but the guy is slinging some top-shelf, the-Nats-are-going-all-the-way, Donald-Trump-Will-Get-the-Mexicans-to-Pay-For-a-Wall level fantasy here. The recess may have provided Democrats a morale-boosting opportunity to raise a little hell in certain GOP senators’ backyards. But Republicans are no closer to backing down now than when they first heard that Nino Scalia had settled down for that great poker game in the sky. If anything, events of the past several days have driven home why McConnell would have a tough time changing course even if he wanted to.

First, take a good, hard look at members’ meetings with Garland, which the White House is spinning as some brewing rebellion against leadership. As Republican staffers will tell you privately, this is the strategy that everyone—leadership, rank-and-file members, and even most outside groups—has settled on: Senators can sit down with the nominee for a chat, maybe even a cup of coffee and a nice pastry, so long as they stick to the party line that hearings are Not. Gonna. Happen. This is, in fact, the position that most members huddling with Garland have stuck to, including Kelly Ayotte, whose Monday announcement that she will meet with him on April 13 generated quite a bit of buzz. Embroiled in a high-stakes reelection race in the blue state of New Hampshire, Ayotte has been a prime target of pro-confirmation protesters. Even so, like Boozman and, more notably, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (gatekeeper of Supreme Court hearings), she has stressed that her meeting with Garland is a gesture of “respect and courtesy”—and an opportunity to explain why she will not be supporting hearings. And lest anyone suspect him of being a squish, Boozman made sure to issue a statement immediately after his Garland meeting, assuring constituents that he remained unmoved.

As for the outliers, there are really only two: Susan Collins has gone rogue by supporting hearings and urging colleagues to meet with Garland, but that’s pretty much par for the course. The gal’s from Maine. What are you gonna do? Illinois’s Kirk, meanwhile, has been aggressively gigging his party brethren. On Wednesday, he issued a memo calling on the rest of the conference to follow his lead in meeting with Garland. Saucier still, in a local radio interview last month, he challenged colleagues to “man up and cast a vote.” But as Kirk likely knows better than anyone, neither Republican lawmakers nor outside groups are all that concerned about what he says or does, because they don’t expect him to be around much longer. Kirk is seen as on track to get his butt whipped by Democratic Representative Tammy Duckworth in November. (Last October, Politico reported that Kirk had already been “written off” by national party operatives.) He is desperately scrambling to salvage his seat by courting Democrats and Independents, but no one much thinks he’ll succeed, so there’s no reason to waste much energy on the guy at this point.

To clarify, Collins and Kirk are not the only Republicans to have expressed an openness to hearings. Back in February, Lisa Murkowski told Alaska reporters that she supported holding them for President Obama’s at that point still-hypothetical nominee. More recently, while home over Easter break, Jerry Moran told Kansans that he thought “the process ought to go forward.” And do you know what happened next? Conservative groups took out after Moran with the ferocity of coked-up wolverines. Public denunciations were issued, attack ads were readied, and a last-minute primary challenge was threatened. It took all of 11 days for a bruised and bleeding Moran to issue a statement reversing himself. In the aftermath of Moran’s beatdown, Murkowski’s office felt moved to assure The New York Times that she, too, had changed her mind about hearings.

And just like that, conservatives brought to heel two heretics with one hissy fit—and sent an ominous warning to any other senators who might be going soft. Who knows how much arm-twisting Republican Senate leaders even bothered with? (Mitch McConnell’s office is too modest to comment.) The collection of loud, well-organized, well-funded interest groups handled the heavy lifting.

Now, maybe something unexpected will happen to make McConnell feel guilty or nervous or simply tired of being the guy responsible for grinding the gears of government to a halt. But even assuming a sudden desire by the majority leader to let Garland proceed, the politics and the calendar of this year would make it tricky. With conservatives now wedded to the stonewalling strategy, any backpedaling before primary season ends could lead to from-the-right challenges to one or more of McConnell’s members. (Taking Kansas as an example, the filing deadline for the state’s August 2 primary is June 1.) Now, factor in that—because of the presidential election—this session of Congress is effectively over by mid-July. Tick. Tock.

White House spin notwithstanding, the clock is fast running out. And Senate Republicans have gotten a good look at what happens to colleagues who get out of line. Garland can attend courtesy meetings until his lips bleed from all the smiling and small talk. But unless something happens—and soon—to make that confirmation slope a lot slipperier, his nomination is still going nowhere.