WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A moderate Republican senator heaped praise on President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee on Tuesday, bucking Senate Republican leaders who promptly dismissed her call for confirmation hearings.
Susan Collins of Maine became only the second Republican senator to meet with Merrick Garland since Obama nominated the centrist appellate judge last month to fill the court vacancy left by the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
The hourlong meeting came as Republican senators face mounting pressure from conservative activists to go along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to block any nominee chosen by Obama.
“The meeting left me more convinced than ever that the process should proceed. The next step, in my view, should be public hearings before the Judiciary Committee,” Collins told reporters.
About two hours later, McConnell told reporters: “It’s safe to say there will not be hearings or votes” on Garland.
McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley have said Obama’s successor, who will be elected on Nov. 8 and take office on Jan. 20, should fill Scalia’s vacancy.
The court is now split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals, meaning Scalia’s successor could influence its ideological direction for years to come.
Collins called Garland “well-informed, thoughtful, impressive, extraordinarily bright and with a sensitivity” toward the roles assigned under the Constitution to the government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The White House said Garland would meet next week with Republican Senators Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, Lisa Murkowski and Jeff Flake for “courtesy visits.”
Garland met last week with Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who called fellow Republicans “closed-minded” for refusing to consider the nomination.
Grassley has invited Garland to a breakfast meeting to explain why he will not hold hearings, a Grassley spokeswoman said on Monday.
Democrats kept up their attack on Republicans for blocking Garland. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, said if McConnell stood firm, Garland would be “the first presidential nominee to the Supreme Court in history to be denied a hearing.”
Flake said if a Democrat wins the presidential election, Garland should be confirmed by the Senate “in a heartbeat” during a post-election legislative session.
Some Republicans are concerned that Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, would select a more liberal nominee than Garland.
Flake’s fellow Republican Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham dismissed the idea of a “lame-duck” session to confirm Garland. Graham said Garland would not be confirmed, adding: “What’s the purpose of a hearing, just to beat him up?”
Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney