It was standing room only in the Dirksen Senate Office Building room, with video cameras and bright lights, senators facing a table of witnesses, even a few civic teachers listening from the audience.
The only thing missing from Wednesday’s public forum on President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court were the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Frustrated by the GOP’s unwillingness to fill the high court vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February, Democrats hosted a discussion to highlight Judge Merrick Garland’s record.
So far, Republicans have held firm and dismissed the meeting as Democratic theatrics.
“Knock yourself out,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of Judiciary, said of the forum. “I don’t think there’s much of an appetite to confirm somebody this close to the election.”
Democratic leaders have been hesitant to pull the trigger on procedural moves to force a vote on Garland and have dismissed questions whether they will hold a hearing on Garland, insisting that Republicans will eventually back down. Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said the forum did not represent a change from that strategy.
“Judge Garland’s been attacked by some of the ultra right and dark money groups, and to have somebody who knows him well, including a Republican, have a chance to speak,” Leahy said Tuesday. “This is no alternative. We would assume that eventually those who have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution would follow the Constitution and have a hearing.”
[Grassley: Democrats Could Force a Vote on Nominee]
Last week, Leahy dismissed the possibility that Democrats would hold a “pretend hearing” on Garland, arguing, “That gets [Republicans] off the hook. The Senate is not a pretend office.”
But for Republicans, the forum amounted to a “pretend hearing.”
Democrats Hold Mock Hearing on Judge Garland
“Apparently [Leahy] was overruled,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor. “Later today, Democrats will have what he called a ‘pretend hearing.'”
Since Democrats are in the minority, they do not have the power to convene committee hearings. But, on the surface, the forum looked like a congressional hearing, except for the completely empty Republican side of the dais and the addition of Casey, who is not a member of the committee.
Over the course of an hour, the witnesses described Garland’s qualifications and answered questions from Judiciary Committee Democrats on Garland’s temperament and the ramifications of a prolonged vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The witnesses included Donna Bucella, a former prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case, which Garland led; former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater who signed onto a letter from civil rights leaders; Timothy K. Lewis, a former appellate judge appointed by President George H.W. Bush; and Justin Driver, one of Garland’s former law clerks. Garland did not attend.
Last week Garland completed another requirement for the position, submitting a 142-page questionnaire required of judicial nominees.
The committee’s chairman, Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who did not attend Wednesday’s forum, described it as a “last gasp” for the Democrats. But he understood where they were coming from.
“I think that if I was in their shoes, I would do everything I could to get the president’s nominee confirmed,” said Grassley, who was attending another event.
He noted the difference in attendance for Democrats at committee’s confirmation hearing for a circuit judge and four district judges earlier Wednesday.
“I had a hearing for five judges this morning, and only two Democrats showed up,” Grassley said. “Now, which is more important, a mock hearing or a real hearing?”
Related:[Grassley: I Haven’t Changed My Mind on Garland Hearings] Democrats plan to continue making their case on the campaign trail , with outside progressive groups targeting vulnerable Republican senators in events and ads in their states through November.
[Democrats Play ‘Trump Card’ Over Court Standoff]
Polls show that the public generally supports a hearing and a vote on Garland, but some Republicans are skeptical that their decision not to consider the nomination will be at on voters’ minds.
“I don’t think most people are going to go into the November voting booth voting on this issue,” Graham said. “[Democrats] are trying — they’re running ads, making floor speeches. They’re doing every theatrical thing they can do to elevate the issue. It’s just not working.”
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.