WASHINGTON Republican senators on Thursday raised the possibility they would confirm Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland before the U.S. president leaves office in January if Democrats retain the White House in the Nov. 8 election.
Garland began the customary meetings with senators that kick off the confirmation process. He visited the offices of Democrats Harry Reid and Patrick Leahy a day after Obama nominated the appeals court judge and former prosecutor to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Feb. 13.
Republicans are concerned that if Hillary Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state and the Democratic front-runner, wins the presidential election, she could send the Senate a far more liberal nominee after taking office.
Garland, 63, is widely viewed as a moderate acceptable to many Republicans, who also worry they could lose control of the Senate to the Democrats in the November vote.
Nominations to the lifetime Supreme Court post require Senate confirmation.
Republicans have said they want the next president to make the selection, hoping their party wins November's election. Billionaire businessman Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Utah's Orrin Hatch and Arizona's Jeff Flake, Republican members of the Judiciary Committee that would hold any confirmation hearings, said it was possible the Senate could act on Garland's nomination in a "lame-duck" session after the election and before a new president and Congress take office in January.
"I would choose a less liberal nominee. And this nominee is a less liberal nominee than we would get, I'm quite certain, with Hillary Clinton," Flake told reporters.
Senate Republican leaders have vowed not to hold confirmation hearings or an up-or-down vote on any Supreme Court nominee put forward by Obama. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky reiterated that stance on Thursday.
Denis McDonough, Obama's chief of staff, said the White House will watch developments over the next several weeks and months but expected Republicans eventually would hold a vote on Garland's nomination.
Any Democratic appointee to the high court, now with four liberals and four conservatives following Scalia's death, could tip it to the left for the first time in decades. That could shape rulings on such issues as abortion, gun rights, religious rights, affirmative action, union powers and political spending.
Flake said while Republican leaders were "fully justified" in delaying action on confirmation, if the Republicans lose the White House race the Senate "ought to look at this nomination in a lame-duck session in November."
Hatch in 1997 backed Garland's nomination to his current judgeship.
"To this day, I think well of Merrick Garland, and I think he's a fine person," Hatch told National Public Radio. "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."
While McConnell is refusing even to meet with Garland, Republican Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa indicated he was willing. "If I can meet with a dictator in Uganda, I can surely meet with a decent person in America," Grassley said, according to CNN.
Garland met with Nevada's Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, and Vermont's Leahy, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Garland did not address reporters, but Leahy expressed hope that Republican leaders would change course.
If they followed a normal routine, senators could hold confirmation hearings and a vote by the Memorial Day holiday in late May, Leahy said.
Reid pledged to keep up the pressure on Republicans to confirm Garland.
"Do it now. Why wait?" Reid said when asked about a lame-duck confirmation scenario. "To hold up a nomination so that Donald Trump can give a nomination? That should scare everybody."
(Reporting by Megan Cassella and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham and Howard Goller)