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Pres. Obama makes case for SCOTUS nominee Garland
03:18 - Source: CNN

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President Barack Obama is pushing Merrick Garland's Supreme Court nomination in local television interviews

His administration is trying to pressure politically-vulnerable Republican senators

Washington CNN  — 

The Senate may be in recess, but the White House and allied groups are working hard to keep the pressure on the chamber’s Republicans to hold a hearing and a vote for the president’s pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland.

Obama appeared on several local TV stations Monday afternoon making the case for Garland. No surprise, they were in markets with vulnerable Senate Republicans who Democrats are trying to pressure to move on the nomination – or pay a steep electoral price.

In Milwaukee, Obama’s target was Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, who has not yet sat down with Garland during the judge’s meet-and-greet tour of the Senate.

“What we’re seeing is unprecedented which is the notion that you wouldn’t meet with or provide a hearing or a vote for a nominee that everybody agrees is eminently qualified. I’m glad that Senator Johnson now has finally agreed to meet with him but he says he’s not gonna give him a vote before the election and yet you haven’t heard a good reason for it,” Obama said on WISN.

In keeping with a theme the administration has pushed from the beginning of its drive to seat Garland on the highest court in the land, the president slammed Senate Republicans’ inaction on a nominee that several have hailed as a qualified, consensus pick.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution that says if you’re in an election year the president shall not make a nomination,” Obama said. “It says the opposite – it says you shall and then it says the Senate shall advise and consent.”

Obama also sat with stations in Phoenix; Manchester, New Hampshire; Cincinnati; Kansas City, Missouri; and Des Moines, Iowa.

While Garland has met with more than a dozen Senate Republicans, the campaign to persuade the GOP to hold hearings has stalled. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans argue that because it is an election year, the decision about who should replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the court should be left to the next president, which they say would allow American voters to have a say in the process.

“As you have probably noticed, I have taken a good deal of hits over this. People say, do your job. Do your job. Well this is my job,” McConnell said to raucous applause at the Kentucky state GOP convention in March. “You all didn’t reelect me and my colleagues didn’t reelect me leader, this time majority leader, to give Barack Obama the opportunity to turn the Supreme Court to the left. It ain’t gonna happen.”

Lobbying efforts by outside groups

The president’s television interviews coincide with a push underway by the progressive group Americans United for Change that is bringing mobile billboards to nine states – Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona, Missouri and North Carolina – over nine days to push for confirmation of a ninth justice to the court. One of the billboards is outside the Sioux City, Iowa, office of Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley that reads “Tell Iowa’s Senators: #DoYourJob. Fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.”

The group’s president, Brad Woodhouse, argued the DoYourJob effort resonates with an American public that is fed up with Congress and said the Republican Senate is showing “blatant disrespect” for Obama.

“This is all political for them,” Woodhouse said, referring to the opposition to Garland. “We’re exclusively going after Republican senators who are up for re-election this year, because they’ve made it clear that for them this is about politics.”

Conservative groups like Susan B. Anthony List have also been gearing up for the fight, putting together a coalition to support pro-life senators who want to block the nomination. The Judicial Crisis Network has spent some $4 million on efforts to block Garland’s nomination, including a TV and digital campaign running in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota and West Virginia featuring a video that highlights what it calls Garland’s liberal record, saying Garland would be “the tie-breaking vote for Obama’s big government liberalism.”

Democrats’ political arguments

The hope for Democrats is that increasing the pressure on GOP senators facing tough re-election fights – like Ohio’s Rob Portman and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania – could lead to hearings and officials are confident Garland would impress viewers if given the chance to answer questions publicly.

Garland, has served on the D.C. Circuit Court for 19 years, the past three years as chief judge. He has met with 46 senators, including 14 Republicans.

Democrats jumped all over a WMUR poll of New Hampshire voters late last month that showed Ayotte’s approval ratings taking a hit since the Supreme Court fight began, but Ayotte who is one of the country’s most vulnerable GOP incumbents, was unmoved. She strongly disagreed with the poll’s findings – and despite meeting with Garland, does not think his nomination should move forward.

“I don’t believe the poll,” Ayotte told CNN. “There are obviously people in my state who have different views on the Supreme Court issue. I think there were some underlying issues with the poll. But I think people in my state understand my position of allowing them to have a say in November and let the people weigh in. And I’m looking forward to continuing to campaign in New Hampshire and I like who where we are.”

Asked if she were considering changing her position after meeting with Garland, Ayotte said flatly: “No.

Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has said he would not hold hearings or a vote on the nomination, is a top target for groups that support Garland.

Pro-Garland interest groups in Washington released a poll showing that many Iowa voters oppose Grassley’s handling of the nomination and believe he is politically-motivated in blocking a vote. Grassley, who is running for his seventh term, faces a potentially tough reelection race this fall.

“This committee has turned into a rubber stamp for this Trump/McConnell situation that’s going on in the Republican Party,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, on a conference call with reporters discussing the poll. “Republicans are in charge, they need to get things done, they need to stop complaining, move forward and do their jobs.”

The White House often notes that every Supreme Court nominee since 1875, who has not withdrawn from the process, has received a hearing or a vote and officials believe Republicans’ political standing is suffering as a result of the position they have taken on the nomination.

Press Secretary Josh Earnest linked the inaction on Garland’s nomination to the lack of movement on emergency funding to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus and on considering restructuring authority for Puerto Rico, which faces a financial crisis, and the inability to pass a budget, painting the Republican-controlled Congress as ineffective on several fronts.

“I think it is clear that they are stalling, that they aren’t doing their jobs, and they’re hoping that no one will notice. I think, unfortunately, they’re going to be wrong about that,” Earnest said Friday.

Recent polls indicate some support for the administration’s view. A March CNN survey found nearly two-thirds (64%) of voters want the Senate to hold hearings on Garland’s nomination and 52% say he should be confirmed. Still, several polls have also shown the court is not a top-tier issue for most voters and since it fires up the GOP base as much as the Democratic base, many Republicans believe the issue to be a wash.

CNN’s Allison Malloy, Manu Raju and Ariane de Vogue contributed