Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) speaks at a news conference July 25, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. 
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A handful of Republicans are willing to clear a low bar

Updated
The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/16/16, 9:46 PM ET

Obama calls GOP bluff with popular nominee

Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent, talks with Rachel Maddow about the merits of Judge Merrick Garland and the possibility of a deal arranged with the White House to confirm Garland if a Democrat wins the 2016 election.
For decades, the process surrounding every Supreme Court nomination has been effectively identical. First, there’s a vacancy, followed by the White House’s vetting process. In time, a president introduces a nominee, who begins making the rounds on Capitol Hill, sitting down for private and informal conversations with senators.
 
From there, the nominee is scrutinized by the Senate Judiciary Committee, before reaching the Senate floor, where his or her nomination is considered for confirmation.
 
Senate Republicans, within minutes of Antonin Scalia’s death last month, announced that the latter half of this process would be prohibited for any nominee submitted by President Obama. But there was a surprising amount of attention yesterday surrounding, of all things, the one-on-one chats between the nominee and senators. The New York Times noted that “a handful” of Republicans said “they would at least talk with” Judge Merrick Garland when he stopped by.
Several of the Republican senators expressing a willingness to meet with Judge Garland were like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, incumbents facing difficult re-election fights. Ms. Ayotte said she still opposed holding a confirmation vote.
 
The willingness of Republican senators to meet with Judge Garland highlights how the degree of difficulty in blocking a nomination rises once there is a face and a resume to go along with it.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he talked to Garland on the phone yesterday, and the Republican leader told the jurist there would be no in-person meeting between them.
 
I’ve seen a variety of counts, but it appears that about 8 of the Senate’s 54 Republicans have said they’re willing to pay Garland the courtesy of a conversation – if only to tell the judge in person why they’re going to block his nomination, regardless of his qualifications.
 
The fact that one-seventh of the Senate Republican conference is prepared to at least say hello to a Supreme Court nominee has been described as a “crack” in the GOP’s unprecedented blockade, which is true. Leading far-right activists and groups have said they expect every Senate Republican to toe a very specific line: no meetings, no hearings, no votes. Full stop. If even a handful of GOP senators accept a meeting with Garland, it’s evidence of some intra-party division.
 
But it’s a reminder of how low the standards have fallen that we’re even counting pro-conversation Senate Republicans.
 
As Dahlia Lithwick joked on the show last night, the standard line from GOP senators is, “When [Garland] walks down the hall, I’m going to hide under my desk.” It’s an absurd tack, of course, but that’s pretty much the position adopted by most of the Senate majority.
 
And with that in mind, there’s a temptation to celebrate the eight or so Republican senators who are willing to have a polite, perfunctory conversation with a Supreme Court nominee as brave and open-minded heroes, champions of decency in a polarized time.
 
But maybe the bar should be a little higher? Take New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, for example, who won some praise yesterday for her willingness to talk to Garland, but who nevertheless intends to join her party’s blockade against the judge, regardless of the merits behind his nomination. If the Republican senator is part of an unprecedented partisan tantrum that will block a qualified jurist from joining the Supreme Court, is her tolerance of a private chat really that impressive?
 
To be sure, any breaks from the GOP line are notable, and may even hint at possible divisions that may yet appear as the process continues. But let’s not pretend some informal conversations between a handful of senators and a nominee are evidence of a bipartisan breakthrough. If Senate Republicans want to earn sincere plaudits for their respectful approach to the process and their responsibilities, they’re going to have to do a lot more than say hello when Garland knocks on their office door.
 
 

Merrick Garland, Senate Republicans and Supreme Court

A handful of Republicans are willing to clear a low bar

Updated