President Barack Obama promised Jeff Flake he would “play it straight” with his Supreme Court pick. Obama rang up Lindsey Graham because of the senator’s reputation for being deferential to presidential nominees. He even courted Orrin Hatch at the White House during a private meeting, telling the senior Republican that he’d choose a “moderate” for the high court vacancy.
Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, Obama has pressed Senate Republicans in numerous private conversations to fill the empty slot on the nation’s most influential court, warning that a lengthy holdup could damage the judiciary.
But Obama’s personal outreach has yielded little in the way of results. Republicans are more resolute than ever when it comes to Merrick Garland. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s blockade is easily holding — even the two GOP senators who had merely entertained holding a confirmation hearing have since changed their minds.
“I told him I appreciate that, I’m sure he’s a fine man,” Graham said of his call with Obama, during which the president urged Graham to consider his nominee. “It’s just that, you know, history is on the side of basically letting the next president do it.”
Obama has personally called nearly a dozen Republican senators before and immediately after nominating Garland, a well-respected veteran jurist who is now the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The broader lobbying effort from the White House on the Senate is far more expansive — Obama has also spoken directly with many Senate Democrats, and either the president or a White House official has contacted every senator or their aides on the Supreme Court vacancy since Scalia died.
Politico queried three dozen Senate Republicans and found eight who have spoken directly with Obama about the Supreme Court vacancy and a ninth who had discussed the issue with Vice President Joe Biden, who has also been working the phones with GOP senators.
Most of Obama’s appeals have concentrated on the epicenter of the Garland blockade, the Senate Judiciary Committee, all of whose 11 Republican members signed a vow to not move his nomination this year.
The president made two calls to Flake — once before Garland was named and again shortly afterward. In the first conversation, Obama told the Arizona Republican that he would nominate a centrist candidate, perhaps someone whose name had already been out there.
“I’m going to play it straight. I’m not looking to make a political point,” Obama told Flake, according to the senator, who generally believes a president should be given deference on his nominees.
Once Garland was chosen, Obama called Flake back and told him: I did what I said I’d do.
Flake was pleased. But it was still a no-go on Garland’s nomination — at least before November.
“I’ve said in a lame duck, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” Flake added.
A day or two before Garland was nominated, Obama dialed Graham, the South Carolina Republican who helped confirm his other two Supreme Court nominees. But this time was different, Graham reasoned. Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor came before Senate Democrats deployed the “nuclear option” in 2013 to lower the filibuster threshold for nearly all nominations.
“I told him that changing the rules the way y’all guys did made it harder for a guy like me to be sympathetic to something outside the normal,” Graham said in recalling his conversation. “He said one of the reasons he’s calling is because I’ve tried to be balanced in my view. And I said ‘Mr. President, when you were in the Senate, if I used your standards, you would be in trouble.’”
Nevertheless, the White House won a small victory with Graham last week when the senator reversed his initial opposition to meeting with Garland, agreeing to meet with the nominee in the coming weeks. But the president hasn’t had similar luck so far with other Judiciary Committee members.
Obama talked on the phone with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) after the vacancy opened up in what a Lee spokesman called a “long conversation.” White House counsel Neil Eggleston tried to connect with Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, but the Republican’s aides informed the White House before the two men could talk on the phone that he wouldn’t change his Supreme Court stance.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) met with Obama in the Oval Office on March 1, and then heard from the president again just over two weeks later, when he was informed that Obama would be choosing Garland.
“It was a very pleasant conversation,” Grassley said. “And a very short one.”
McConnell, who also attended the Oval Office meeting with Grassley, hasn’t spoken to either Obama or Biden about the Supreme Court vacancy since that sit-down, during which the conversation veered off into other topics, such as the opioid epidemic and even basketball. Obama’s conversation about the vacancy with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) seemed to steer off elsewhere too — pivoting mostly to criminal justice reform, a shared interest of the two men.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also spoke with Obama, although she said she would prefer not to disclose details of the conversation. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who like Collins is a key Senate institutionalist, would say only that his “private conversations with the president are confidential, but this debate is not about Judge Garland. It’s about whether to give the American people a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice.”
Also notable is who hasn’t been on Obama’s call list. Democrats have aggressively targeted vulnerable Senate Republicans in swing states, who Democrats believe will suffer politically by joining the Garland blockade, but there doesn’t appear to have been direct phone calls from Obama to many of those GOP senators.
Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Rob Portman of Ohio and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin all say they have not heard from Obama nor Biden. A spokeswoman for Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said he and Obama have not spoken directly, although the senator received a handwritten note from the president, who thanked Kirk for advocating Garland’s confirmation. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) declined to comment.
Not even all the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, the powerful panel that controls all judicial nominations, have heard from Obama. In interviews last week, Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, David Perdue of Georgia and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — all junior members of the committee — said they haven’t spoken with the president.
But it likely would not have made any difference, given that all three are rock-ribbed conservatives who staunchly oppose going forward with Obama’s nominee this year.
“I know there are a lot of conversations going on,” Perdue said. “But to me, my position has been the same all along.”
A spokeswoman for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee but is busy these days campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination, did not respond to an email asking whether Cruz has heard directly from either Obama or Biden about the Supreme Court.
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) received a call from Biden shortly after Garland was nominated March 16. Coats has been viewed as a potential “get” in favor of Garland, considering that the retiring senator also supported the judge in 1997.
The two didn’t initially connect, since Coats was at a closed-door Intelligence Committee briefing when Biden first called. When the two eventually talked on the phone a day later, Biden told Coats that since his first attempt to reach the senator, he had seen Coats ’s statement that he didn’t support proceeding on the Garland nomination this year.
“I said, ‘Well, Mr. Vice President, I looked at this carefully and made a decision to follow the wise counsel of the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden, saying we really shouldn’t take these things up in the middle of a toxic election,’” Coats recalled.
Biden, according to Coats, laughed.
“Yeah, I heard your statement,” Biden responded to Coats, according to the senator’s account. “I guess I was a day late and a dollar short.”
John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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