Grassley, Garland reprise 1990s judicial confirmation fight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chuck Grassley and Merrick Garland go way back, but when the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee chairman and President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee meet for a private breakfast on Tuesday, they will not exactly be sharing fond memories.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) speaks at an event for Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) in Urbandale, Iowa, in this file photo taken January 30, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/Files

Two decades ago, Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spearheaded a fight against Garland’s nomination to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Just like now, a Democratic president, in that case Bill Clinton, submitted Garland’s nomination to a Republican-controlled Senate.

Garland, then a top Justice Department lawyer, was denied a Senate confirmation vote in 1995 and 1996 despite earning bipartisan praise.

Finally, in 1997, after Clinton renominated Garland upon winning re-election in 1996, was he confirmed to a seat on the court that was a launching pad to the Supreme Court for Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas, as well as the late Antonin Scalia.

Fast-forward to 2016: Another Democratic president has chosen Garland to replace Scalia only to have Grassley and a Republican Senate maneuver to block the nomination without so much as a Judiciary Committee hearing.

“Nothin’ against him,” the 82-year-old Grassley, who describes himself as “just a farmer from Butler County,” told Reuters.

Even so, Garland, 63, will sit down with Grassley on Tuesday and be told that once again, his nomination will be put on ice.

In 1995 and 1996, Garland was entangled in “what ended up being a 12- or 15-year crusade,” Grassley said, to reduce the number of judges on the federal appeals court that Clinton chose him to join. Two decades later, Grassley again offered no criticism of Garland’s qualifications.

Grassley, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has decided to ignore Garland’s nomination in the hope that a Republican will be elected president on Nov. 8 and, after taking office in January, would choose a conservative rather than the centrist Garland.

“It’s not about him because we’re living by the principle ‘let the people have a voice,’” Grassley said, referring to the November presidential and congressional elections.

Grassley, no stranger to controversy during 35 years in the Senate, has become the target of Democrats’ scorn in this Supreme Court drama.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Grassley could go down as both inept and the “most obstructionist” Judiciary Committee chairman in history.

Other voices have weighed in against Grassley and his fellow Republicans, with the Des Moines Register newspaper in his home state calling the Garland blockade “un-American.” Grassley, facing re-election in November, insists he will not buckle, and called the Register’s editorial “hyperbolic rhetoric.”

In a Senate speech last week, he recounted showdowns dating back to the 1980s when he took on a popular president from his own party, Ronald Reagan, over budget matters.

“I am no stranger to political pressure and to strong-arm tactics,” Grassley said.

Grassley then turned his attention to Roberts, criticizing a speech the chief justice made shortly before Scalia’s death about the politicization of the confirmation process and warning Roberts, appointed by Republican George W. Bush, to keep his mouth shut in the Garland fight.

“Now that’s a political temptation that the chief justice should resist,” Grassley said.

Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham