Story highlights

GOP leadership's resolve to deny a hearing for Obama's Supreme Court is hardening

Leadership is being backed up by some key at-risk senators

Washington CNN  — 

In an awkward meeting at the White House this month, Mitch McConnell had a message for his adversaries: Democrats had only themselves to blame for the escalating war over the Supreme Court.

McConnell, according to two sources familiar with the session, singled out the four Democrats in the room: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama himself. He said all four of them did something he and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley did not do: Attempt to filibuster Samuel Alito’s nomination in 2006, setting a new precedent in the Supreme Court wars.

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“You reap what you sow,” McConnell said, according to the sources.

In the aftermath of Obama’s Wednesday decision to nominate federal judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Republicans now are planning on setting yet another precedent: Denying confirmation hearings for a nominee, something that has not been done since such proceedings became common practice more than 60 years ago. The hardline has given Democrats ammunition against the GOP-led Senate for treating a qualified nominee unfairly, an argument they plan to make as they try to defeat a handful of vulnerable senators in swing states in November.

But in interviews with CNN, the Republican leadership’s resolve to deny a hearing for Obama’s pick only seemed to be hardening after the President’s announcement. And they got backup from some key at-risk senators, who said that the next president – not the current one– should make the Supreme Court choice.

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Vulnerable Republicans

That’s a sign that vulnerable Republicans were betting that their base would reward them at the polls for standing firm to the President on a fight that could redefine the court for a generation.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, one of the most endangered Republicans this year, said “out of courtesy and respect,” she’s “open” to meeting with Garland, breaking with McConnell, who opposes scheduling such a visit. But she was firmly in McConnell’s camp when it came to whether Garland should be considered by the full Senate.

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“I still believe this position is a lifetime appointment and one that will have a consequential impact on the country and the Supreme Court for decades to come. So I continue to believe that we should consider the people’s view on this by waiting for the confirmation process to go forward after the elections in November,” Ayotte said.

Other vulnerable senators, like Rob Portman of Ohio and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, sided with Ayotte.

Democrats believe that public opinion is firmly on their side. In a March 3 CNN/ORC poll, 66% of voters said the GOP should hold hearings on the nominee, and Democrats believe the intense pressure campaign will force that number to grow.

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, said the GOP is taking obstruction to a whole new level.

“Mitch McConnell is the world’s most accomplished hypocrite,” Jentleson said. “Alito received fair hearings, floor consideration and was confirmed.”

The public pressure will begin Thursday when Garland begins to make the rounds on Capitol Hill, as GOP senators are split on whether to even meet with him. It will intensify over the next two weeks in the home states of endangered Republican senators, with protests by activists that they hope can turn into negative media coverage over the GOP’s hardline.

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Democrats have privately circled July 4 as their target date to get the GOP to crack, before the party conventions that month, the August recess and a brief September session ahead of the November elections.

“I think the Republican leadership position is completely untenable and unsustainable,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut. “Because No. 1, the American people are absolutely fed up with a Senate that is stuck in gridlock and constant paralysis. What I hear most commonly from my constituents is ‘why can’t you get things done?’”

Republicans have repeatedly praised Merrick Garland

Some Republicans seemed receptive to that argument.

Sen. Mark Kirk, who faces a tough re-election in the blue state of Illinois, said he will “assess Judge Merrick Garland based on his record and qualifications.”

And the Maine moderate, Sen. Susan Collins, who voted in 1997 to put Garland in his current spot as the chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, said she’d meet with the judge and called on the Judiciary Committee to move forward with hearings.

“I believe the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold a hearing,” Collins said. “That would be the normal course.”

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But Collins and Kirk are solidly in the minority of their caucus. Other GOP senators who voted for Garland in 1997, including Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, oppose moving forward on the nomination now.

“I supported him,” Roberts said when asked why he voted for him in 1997.

Would he vote for him now?

‘Let the people decide’

“It’s not about the person,” Roberts said, repeating the mantra from this party leadership. “It’s about the process. Let the people decide.”

Pennsylvania’s Toomey, one of the vulnerable Republicans facing a tough re-election in a swing state, dashed from reporters in the Capitol Wednesday, refusing to take questions about Garland and whether he would meet with him. However, in a press release issued by his office, the first-term senator said a confirmation should wait until after the election “to give the American people a more direct voice” in picking a justice.

Another threatened Republican, Portman of Ohio, acknowledged he will face enormous pressure from Democrats and outside groups on the issue but said he still thinks a nominee should wait for a new president.

“I’m sure there will be ads on both sides. This is not about politics. It’s about what’s best for the country,” he said.

Republicans believe it’s worth spending some political capital in their standoff with Democrats to prevent a major shift in the direction of the court should the seat of the late Antonin Scalia, a reliable conservative, be filled by a more liberal justice.

The GOP holds a slim 54-46 majority in the Senate and must defend 24 seats in November compared to just 10 for Democrats if they are to maintain the majority. Republicans insist they won’t get hurt politically by their defiant stand, arguing voters are more interested in terrorism, national security, jobs and the economy than a Supreme Court vacancy.

“We have a real comfort level in allowing the American people to voice their feelings about the direction of the Supreme Court,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign committee. “We trust the people and we think they will appreciate being given an opportunity to speak first.”

CNN’s Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.