WASHINGTON -- Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pointed to a basic question Thursday to prod Senate Republicans to rethink their opposition to hearings on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland: What are they afraid of?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insists that Republicans will not hold hearings on Garland, an assertion he repeated Thursday. McConnell argues that because President Barack Obama's term expires in January 2017, voters should get a say in the nomination by expressing their choice for the next commander in chief.
Democrats have repeatedly noted that the Constitution doesn't limit a president's power in election years, and that the Republicans who want the next president to choose could just vote Garland down.
All of which moved King to suggest Republicans seem especially worried over what might happen to them in the normal course of evaluating a high court nominee.
"I don’t understand what people are worried about if they have hearings," King said at a news conference with Democrats outside the Supreme Court. "Are they afraid they’ll like him? I don’t get that. Or that somehow they’ll be hypnotized into voting a way they don’t want to vote?"
"Let’s just have the hearings, let’s go though the process, and do what we were sent here to do," King said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed King later Thursday after meeting with Garland in his Senate office.
"Why can’t the Republicans do what they’re supposed to do, do their jobs?" Reid said. "Why are they afraid to meet with him? Why are they afraid to hold hearings? Are they afraid the American people will watch these hearings and demand they do something more than they are demanding now?"
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is expected to be the next Democratic leader of the Senate, suggested the GOP should be more afraid of its own behavior, which he said seemed aimed at trying to preserve an empty seat on the Supreme Court for Republican front-runner Donald Trump to fill.
"If Republicans continue to stand in the way and refuse to do their job, it will only be because they want Donald Trump to pick the next nominee," Schumer said. "If the Republicans in the Senate want to continue to tie themselves to Donald Trump, so be it. Donald Trump won’t make America great again, but he will make Republicans the minority again."
For his part, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), whose job is to hold hearings on judicial nominations, told reporters he wasn't worried about much.
Asked if he was concerned the blockade could actually lead to the naming of a more liberal justice should Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton win the White House, he said, "You got to accept the will of the voter."
Grassley also demurred when asked whether he was worried about Schumer's suggestion the blockade would hurt the re-election chances of Republican senators in swing states (such as Grassley).
"If you're going to do what's right, you can't worry about the next election," Grassley said, standing by his effort to delay the nomination until after the next election.
Some Republicans have backed off their opposition to even meeting Garland. Grassley did not go that far, but he did allow that he would speak by phone to the federal appeals court judge when the Senate returns from spring break next month.
Some Republicans have also softened a bit on their opposition to confirming an Obama nominee this year if Clinton wins in November, saying they might vote on him then, during Obama's lame-duck period.
Democratic leaders saw the mild retreat by some Republicans from McConnell’s adamant stance as an early sign that McConnell would have to give in, starting with meeting Garland.
"I think the average senator says, 'I look like a real impolite sort of person to not even see this guy.' It’s a step at a time," Schumer told reporters.
"The fact that several of them entertained lame duck shows that their whole theory, they don’t really believe it," Schumer said. "Because if they believed it, they wouldn’t entertain the lame duck. Because the lame duck is also before the new president takes office. ... There’s no constitutional and legal logic to what they are saying, it’s pure and raw politics."
This article has been updated with comment from Reid.
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.