Policy

Obama Takes Uphill Supreme Court Battle to Chicago

President to press Republicans, who say he's wasting his time

President Barack Obama will head to his law school to make the case for a Merrick Garland confirmation. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will return to the friendly confines of the prestigious university where he taught constitutional law to argue the country’s founding document means the Senate should take up his final-year Supreme Court nominee.  

Obama travels to the University of Chicago on Thursday, where he is expected to continue trying to mount public pressure on vulnerable Senate Republicans -- and their leadership -- to give Merrick Garland confirmation hearings and, ultimately, a floor vote.  

The administration’s strategy appears to be, in true Obama fashion, a long-term one. Rather than launching a full-court press on Senate Republicans, the White House seems content to make its case with a steady stream of op-eds, media interviews and public remarks from the president and his top lieutenants.  

The idea behind the strategy is to help intensify, election-year public pressure on enough Republican senators that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, give in.  

Everything You Need to Know About the Supreme Court Battle 

White House officials said they see a “sea change” among Senate Republicans about the nomination, noting that nearly 20 of the chamber’s 45 GOP members have shifted -- many due to voter pushback -- and agreed to meet one-on-one with Garland.  

Obama aides shopped that view this week but there are no signs that McConnell or Grassley are budging from their position that the next president should make the nomination.  

Collins impressed Garland headed back to the Senate Tuesday to meet with four senators and make his case for why he should be the next justice. And one member of the party opposing his nomination was impressed.

“My meeting today with Judge Garland left me more convinced than ever that the process should proceed," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has been critical of GOP leadership's decision not to give Garland's nomination a hearing or a vote.

Collins, and Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., have been the two main voices in the caucus calling for the nomination to move forward.

"I am not optimistic that I will be changing minds on the issue," Collins said. "But I think if more of my colleagues sit down with Judge Garland, that they are going to be impressed by him."  

Collins stopped short of saying Garland's meetings with Republicans would change their positions, noting "It's always hazardous to predict what one's colleagues are going to do."  

McConnell reiterated Tuesday that there has been no change in the number of Republican senators -- 52 out of 54 -- who have said the hearings and appointment should wait until next year.  

McConnell declined to comment on conservative groups criticizing GOP senators who agreed to meet with Garland, including Collins and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who sat down with the D.C. jurist for roughly 20 minutes Tuesday.  

'Constitutional responsibility' In Chicago, Obama will “say that the Senate ... should do their job, and that that's an argument that you've heard him make before,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday.  

"I'm confident that the president will reiterate a case that you've heard him make a number of times now,” Earnest said, “that the Senate should set aside partisan considerations and actually focus on their Constitutional responsibility. Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman, said Obama and Senate Democrats are trying to “spin phantom momentum and incrementalism [because] they’ve run headlong into reality.”  

“There are now fewer [Republican senators] calling for hearings, not more as they hoped. There are some GOP senators open to a courtesy visit, but only two are open to hearings—the rest have reaffirmed that they want the American people to have a voice,” Stewart said.  

“It is rare to see such a massive campaign — led by the bully pulpit of the White House, funded by millions of dollars from every special interest group in the country, staffed by all the best Democrat consultants, and abetted by massive press coverage — fail so spectacularly in moving Republicans off of their principled positions,” he added.  

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, however, said in a statement that the White House and Senate Democrats’ collective efforts “have gained zero ground toward confirming Garland,” adding Democrats' tactics “targeting specific Republican Senators have completely backfired.  

Citing recent polls with good news for two Senate Republicans in tight races — Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Roy Blunt of Missouri — the NRSC said GOP senators are “improving their position -- and blowing a hole in the Democrats’ rationale for confirming Merrick Garland before the American people have a chance to speak.”  

Expect Obama to counter such arguments by saying the Constitution gives presidents four year terms to carry out their full slate of duties, including appointing high court justices. Also look for the president to echo themes used in recent weeks by some of his top aides.  

Court evenly split For instance, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston last Friday argued the Supreme Court, currently evenly split with four conservative and four liberal justices, will be unable to perform some of its basic functions: settling lower-court disputes on federal laws.  

“That’s one of the things the SCOUTS is there to preclude and keep from happening,” Eggleston said. “A lot of people focus on hot-button cases, but a lot of what the court does is … that kind of blocking and tackling.”  

And in a speech at Georgetown Law Center late last month, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., warned that a “fully functioning” high court with its full array of nine jurists is needed because “geographic happenstance cannot fragment our national unity.”  

An eight-justice court split along ideological grounds would amount to a “patchwork Constitution,” Biden said, with federal laws implemented differently in different parts of the country.  

White House aides were mum this week on whether Obama would take up a dire message delivered late last month by Biden, a former Senate Judiciary chairman who oversaw eight Supreme Court confirmation processes.  

“What Republican senators say they would do could lead to a genuine Constitutional crisis born out of the dysfunction of Washington,” Biden said. He was referring to a repeated vow by McConnell and others that Garland will get neither a confirmation hearing nor a vote while Obama is in office.  

Before Biden’s speech, the Obama administration’s messaging primarily had focused on its interpretation of the Constitution’s orders for presidents and lawmakers, as well as Garland’s legal resume and personal story.  

On the latter two matters, expect Obama to continue making the case that the chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is a so-called “consensus pick” for the high court. The president likely will call Garland “eminently qualified,” a favorite description of Garland uttered in public and private settings by White House officials since his March 16 nomination.  

Niels Lesniewski and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or Android.