In the face of steadfast Republican refusal to budge in their attempt to block President Barack Obama’s eventual Supreme Court nominee, the beginnings of a coordinated political effort to shame the GOP came into focus Thursday.
Assembling at midday on the steps of the Supreme Court to make another public call for hearings – which Sen. Chuck Grassley, the GOP chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already ruled out – Democrats insisted their political opponents risked damaging the country’s legal underpinnings if they refused to relent.
“The court needs nine justices to function properly. It is vital to our judicial system. So Republicans, we say this, just do your job. Just do what you’re sent here to do,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Earlier Thursday, Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid declared his Republican rivals were acting as a “set of human brake pads” in resisting Obama’s nomination.
“Guess they believe that the American people will forget about this vacancy. But they won’t. Democrats are going to fight every day to ensure that this important nominee gets a dignified confirmation process that past Senates have afforded all Supreme Court nominations,” Reid said, adding that Senate Democrats would continue to press their case.
“Pretending the nominee doesn’t exist won’t make the Supreme Court vacancy go away, it won’t make the President’s nomination vanish,” he said.
The moves – a combination of shaming, goading or otherwise attempting to push Republicans into yielding – comprised a synchronized effort on the part of Democrats to see Obama’s to-be-determined pick given consideration before the Senate.
In Democrats’ sights: vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in November, who the White House believes could be swayed into supporting hearings if enough pressure is applied.
Liberal groups closely aligned with the White House and the Democratic Party have already begun targeting Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin as potential Republican converts to at least convening hearings on a Supreme Court nominee.
All four senators represent swing states, and all four are up for reelection this year.
Obama suggested Wednesday that some Republicans may be holding the line in public while privately appearing ashamed of their stance.
“I’ve talked to many of them, and I’ve told them I’m sympathetic. And, by the way, there’s not a lot of vigor when they defend the position that they’re taking, that they wouldn’t even meet, for example, with a Supreme Court nominee. They’re pretty sheepish about it when they make those comments,” he said in the Oval Office.
Private conversations aside, few signs have appeared that Republicans are planning to back off their position.
Grassley, writing in an op-ed Thursday in USA Today, said his decision to forgo hearings “is based on the principle that in an American democracy, in a divided nation, the people should be empowered to weigh in on such a consequential decision.”
“Voters rejected President Obama’s policies in 2014, when they revoked the Democrats’ Senate majority,” he wrote. “As the Senate fulfills its ‘advice and consent’ responsibility, we will protect the ability of the American people to express their will on the direction of the court.”
Obama will meet with McConnell, Reid, Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, at the White House Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said in his briefing Thursday.
The meeting came about after a number of conversations – “some of them awkward” – between the White House and the lawmakers’ offices.
The Democratic National Committee has convened issued-based conference calls each day this week with stakeholders in politically charged issues that could come before the court in coming years, including LBGT rights, immigration and abortion.
“We’re going to continue to cast a spotlight on the Republican obstructionism on the Supreme Court and highlight how the issues before the court or potentially before the court have a major impact on the lives of the American people,” said Luis Miranda, the DNC’s communications director. “Too many issues at the heart of our democracy head before the court every year and deserve a full bench’s consideration, so to extend the dysfunction that plagues congress to the Court is unacceptable.
The DNC said Thursday’s call would center on voting rights, an issue that’s also become a major topic for Democratic presidential candidates ahead of the South Carolina primary Saturday.
The leak Wednesday that White House vetters were probing the Republican governor of Nevada, Brian Sandoval, also seemed designed to signal that Obama was considering moderate nominees in his selection process.
Sandoval took himself out of the running Thursday, issuing a statement.
Aides say Obama has not yet formed a “shortlist” for candidates, and no interviews between the President and potential candidates have been conducted. But the prospect of a Republican nominee allowed Democrats to raise the notion that Republicans have already ruled out considering any nominee, even a member of their own party.
Political tactic or not, the notion that Obama would name a Republican to the bench gained little traction with Hillary Clinton, campaigning for president in South Carolina.
“I really love Nevada, and I know the governor has done some good things, but I sure hope the president chooses a true progressive who will stand up for the values and the interests of the people of this country,” she said.
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.