Now that President Barack Obama has picked Judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, all eyes turn to the Republicans who control the Senate and their powerful Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley. The veteran Iowa senator is under intense scrutiny – Republicans want him to hold the line and not allow any vetting or even a hearing for Garland, and Democrats are already making him the face of GOP obstruction and a campaign issue for 2016.
Most Republican senators firmly back the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Grassley to wait for a new president to be elected before filling the vacancy. But Democrats in Washington think they have a chance to persuade Grassley to change his mind, with the hope that if he caves, others will follow. They will be joined in the effort by liberal activists in Grassley’s home state of Iowa during the weeks and months ahead in a broad campaign to raise the pressure dramatically on the 82 year-old to do so.
Democrats are stressing that Grassley, who is running this year for a seventh term, is in danger of losing his hard-earned reputation as an independent player who can work across the aisle, something that could turn off voters at home who have re-elected him repeatedly with wide margins.
“He is allowing himself and his committee to be manipulated by the Republican leader for narrow, partisan warfare,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, in one of his near daily Senate speeches blasting Grassley since the seat unexpectedly opened up with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia just over a month ago. “He is taking his order from the Republican leader and, sadly, Donald Trump.”
Grassley and other Republicans justify their decision by arguing the country is in the midst of a raucous presidential campaign, one marked by bitterness and deep divisions between the parties, so it’s best to let the next president select a replacement for Scalia, who was one of the most conservative members of the court.
“The next Supreme Court justice could dramatically change the direction of the court,” Grassley said in a floor speech this week. “The majority of this body believes the American people shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to weigh in on this question.”
Democrats reject that idea of waiting and argue voters spoke four years ago when they re-elected Obama.
“The Senate’s constitutional duty transcends partisan bickering. The people of Iowa don’t want a Senate that treats its constitutional duties differently based on who is in the White House,” Reid said before citing the “do your jobs” mantra that Democrats repeat again and again to pressure GOP senators to act.
Grassley has declined to talk to journalists on Capitol Hill, turning down interview requests and slipping away from reporters who have waited outside his office or his committee room to get comment. Though late Wednesday afternoon the White House announced Garland and Grassley will meet after the upcoming congressional recess – a step Majority Leader McConnell has declined to take.
And the pair spoke by phone earlier in the day, according to a statement from Grassley’s office. Though the senator didn’t sound as firm about an upcoming meeting as did the White House.
“This morning, after being notified of the Supreme Court nomination, Chairman Grassley agreed to take a call from Judge Garland. They talked at 3:19 p.m. Chairman Grassley congratulated Judge Garland and reiterated the position of the Senate majority, that it will give the American people a voice and an opportunity this year to debate the role of the Supreme Court in our system of government. Senator Grassley will reiterate the position again if an in-person meeting is scheduled.”
Democrats start pressure campaign in Iowa
In Iowa, activists have already started their campaign against Grassley. On Sunday in Waterloo, about 40 protestors gathered on the steps of the local courthouse and chanted, “Chuck, do your job,” according to the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier.
Some Iowa newspaper editorial boards have chastised Grassley for his stance, rare criticism for the popular senator who travels frequently around his state meeting constituents while maintaining a perfect voting record in the Senate since 1993. Those critical opinion pieces then are amplified by Democrats in Washington who blast them to reporters in emails titled “Bad Week for Grassley” and “March Came in Like Lion a for Grassley.”
A coalition of Democratic interest groups based in Washington is running a campaign targeting Grassley and other GOP senators – especially those up for re-election in swing states – to pressure them to flip their positions. They are using ads, online petitions, outreach to editorial boards, rapid response emails, and other methods to raise the stakes.
Democrats think Grassley may change his position because they believe he waffled somewhat initially on the question of holding hearings in the days after Scalia’s death. They also view him as an old school lawmaker who believes in making the Senate function properly.
“Chuck Grassley has good, fine Midwestern values and he knows not even seeing a nominee is the right or polite thing to do,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a top Democratic leader who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, another member of the committee, said he hopes Grassley’s “respect and affection for the institution” and his “commitment to the functioning of the Judiciary Committee” will “persuade him to reconsider.”
Grassley proudly issued a press release last week after the Lugar Center, founded by former GOP Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, ranked him as the 15th most bipartisan senator. Grassley also faces a potentially difficult general election challenge by former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, a Democrat who announced her candidacy after Scalia died.
“I think we can pick the seat up,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who runs the Democrats’ election arm. “I think the fact that Grassley did what he did on the Supreme Court is a symptom of how he has changed.”
Fellow Republicans have Grassley’s back
Sen. Roger Wicker runs the Senate Republican campaign committee. He says he doesn’t think the Supreme Court issue will impact senators running this year.
“The issue is letting the American people during this election year speak to the direction of the court for the next generation,” the Mississippi Republican said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect the outcome of Senate races.”
And Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican running for re-election in Ohio, said he’s not planning to shift his stance despite expected pressure campaigns.
“I’m not going to change my position, because it’s based on the principle of this nominee having the possibility of reshaping the court for generations, and I think it’s best to allow the American people to weigh in on that,” Portman said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior Republican in the Senate, went to the floor recently to defend Grassley against Reid’s daily attacks.
“These diatribes rank among the nastiest and most personal remarks I’ve heard on the Senate floor in my 40 years in this body,” he said. “You’re never going to bully Sen. Grassley to change his mind.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said he is “100 percent behind Chuck Grassley” and blamed Democrats for changing Senate rules in recent years to pack federal courts with Obama appointees.
McConnell has spoken out repeatedly for Grassley, noting that he has a “passion for letting Iowans and the American people be heard” before a Supreme Court nominee is confirmed.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican, described Grassley as “like a rock” and no matter how much pressure Democrats put on him, he won’t fold.
CNN’s Deirdre Walsh and Manu Raju contributed to this report