(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republican leaders tried to shut down talk of a lame-duck vote to put Merrick Garland on the U.S. Supreme Court after cracks appeared in what has been a nearly unified front to block any nominee by President Barack Obama.
A day after Orrin Hatch of Utah, the longest-serving Senate Republican, told reporters he was open to considering Garland after the November election, the number two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, went to the floor to say he opposed the idea.
Cornyn said that would violate the "principle" Republicans say they are standing for.
"If you believe in the principle that the American people’s voice ought to be heard, it makes no sense to have an election and then to do it and not honor their selection," Cornyn said.
Garland went to Capitol Hill Thursday for the first day of what will probably be a months-long campaign to pressure Republicans to consider his nomination.
His first meeting was with Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on Senate Judiciary, who called on Republicans to meet with Garland, not just take his phone calls.
"This is too important to phone it in," Leahy told reporters after the meeting.
As soon as Obama nominated Garland, the chief judge on the D.C. federal appeals court, to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat, Senate Republicans insisted they wouldn’t consider any nominee until a new president takes office.
Democrats are hoping that the presence of Garland, who is likely to be a fixture in the Senate hallways over the coming weeks, will amp up pressure on Republicans to relent and give him a hearing -- or pay a price at the ballot box in November.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, after a press conference held by Democrats outside the Supreme Court steps Thursday, predicted more and more cracks would show in the Republican blockade in the coming weeks. He said the talk of a vote in a lame-duck session laid bare their political calculation.
"It showed what they are really trying to do is just be political and ideological and get as far right a nominee as they can," Schumer said. "There is no constitutional, legal logic to what they are saying. It’s pure and raw politics."
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, also dismissed the lame-duck idea. "The words ’lame duck’ are not in the Constitution. If they can have a hearing in the lame duck, they can have a hearing now."
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on Thursday called it a “simple question of fairness” for senators to hold hearings on the nominee, and said he was “gratified” that some Republican senators had agreed to meet with Garland.
“We think they should be fair, and we think at the end of the day they will be,” he said in an MSNBC interview.
In addition to the session with Leahy, Garland is meeting Thursday with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Garland also plans to meet with Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, when the Senate returns from its two-week recess in April, the White House said.
Grassley reiterated Wednesday that he won’t schedule hearings or votes on the nomination, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who spoke briefly with Garland Wednesday, refused to meet with him in person. McConnell also repeated his pledge that the next president will fill the vacant Supreme Court seat.
"The Senate will appropriately revisit the matter when it considers the qualifications of the nominee the next president nominates, whoever that might be," McConnell said on the Senate floor.
The battle over Scalia’s seat has the potential to shape the Supreme Court for a decade or two, and whoever is confirmed would be a pivotal vote on a number of divisive issues.
Cornyn acknowledged Thursday that ruling out a lame-duck confirmation could lead to a more liberal justice by the next Democratic president, but said the principle of listening to the voters is the same.
"That’s all speculation right now," he said.
Senate Democrats are betting that Republicans will begin to splinter and eventually cave under public pressure. In particular, they are eyeing several Republican senators who are facing tough re-election fights this fall.
Indeed, several Republicans said Wednesday they would agree to meet with Garland, while Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is facing a tough re-election battle, said the Senate should consider Garland’s nomination.
“We were, however, gratified to see more than a handful of senators changing their position yesterday and agreeing to meet with Justice Garland,” McDonough said.
The party’s campaign arm, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has also been pummeling vulnerable Republicans in states won twice by Obama for their blanket opposition to any pick by the president.
Republicans running for re-election disagree on how to respond. Kirk says he’s willing to consider Garland. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are open to meeting with Garland but back McConnell on taking no action. Pat Toomey supports McConnell’s position, as does Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who sent a fundraising e-mail to his supporters touting the obstruction.
Several other Republicans told reporters they would agree to the courtesy calls, including Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona, which could make it tougher for other Republicans to avoid a meeting.
Democrats could even end up with a double benefit from the Garland pick: an issue ready-made to boost Democratic turnout by painting Republicans as partisan obstructionists in the fall, and confirmation in a lame-duck session after the election.
Of all the Republicans, Hatch is probably in the most awkward situation, given that he had previously recommended to Obama that he choose Garland for earlier Supreme Court openings and said Wednesday he’s open to confirming him once the election is over.
In 2010, Hatch called Garland "terrific" and predicted he could be confirmed "virtually unanimously."
Now, Hatch is singing a slightly different tune, saying that the current climate is too poisonous to consider any nominee.
"I’d probably be open to resolving this in a lame duck," Hatch told reporters in the Capitol Wednesday. "He’s a good man, but he shouldn’t be brought up in this toxic environment."
Collins, for her part, again called on the Senate to go through the process of vetting the nominee and holding a hearing. And she did wonder if a lame-duck confirmation could be the endgame.
"That may well be how it turns out," she said. "The irony would be if Secretary Clinton wins, and this nominee, who is considered a centrist, is not considered, and we end up with a nominee who is far more liberal. That certainly would be an ironic outcome."