WASHINGTON -- One of the few Republican senators who has agreed to meet with President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee expressed her admiration for appeals court judge Merrick Garland after talking with him Tuesday, and called for her colleagues to sit down with him as well.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) met with the long-serving jurist from the District of Columbia Circuit for more than an hour, and told reporters afterward that it only reinforced her belief that the Senate should do its job by holding hearings on the nominee to the nation's highest court.
Obama nominated Garland after Justice Antonin Scalia's death in February.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared almost immediately after Scalia's death that Obama should not bother with a nominee because Senate Republicans would refuse to hold hearings and a vote, regardless of who it was.
Collins disagreed with her colleagues, and offered high praise after actually meeting Garland.
"I found Judge Garland to be well-informed, thoughtful, impressive, extraordinarily bright and with a sensitivity that I look for [regarding the] appropriate roles that the Constitution assigns to the three branches," she said.
Some more hard-line Republicans and conservative activist groups have tried to paint Garland as an unrestrained liberal, but Collins did not seem to get that impression.
"The meeting left me more convinced than ever that the process should proceed," she said. "The next step in my view should be public hearings."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, initially backed McConnell by saying he'd refuse to hold meetings and hearings with Garland. But after facing pressure from voters in Iowa and from Democrats, he has now agreed to talk to the judge.
Collins declined to predict whether the growing momentum to sit down with the Supreme Court nominee would lead to hearings, but suggested that Grassley's new willingness to meet with Garland was a sign.
"Let's see if after that meeting, Sen. Grassley still holds to the position that there should not be hearings," Collins said.
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) is meeting with Garland later Tuesday. That comes after Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) met with him last week, which makes it a total of three GOP senators who will have met with Obama's court pick thus far.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday that he expects more Republicans to agree to at least sit down with Garland.
"I would anticipate that there will be additional meetings with additional Republican senators over the next couple of weeks," Earnest said during his daily briefing. "There are still a dozen or so other senators … who have also indicated an openness to a meeting."
Earnest said it's becoming increasingly uncomfortable for certain GOP senators not to meet with Garland. Since Boozman is meeting with Garland today, for example, it puts pressure on fellow Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton to do the same.
"Is he not going to show that same old-fashioned Southern hospitality to Chief Judge Garland?" asked the White House spokesman. "It certainly begs that question now that his colleague from the great state of Arkansas has agreed to meet with Chief Garland."
Cotton doesn't seem that stressed about it.
"Sen. Cotton has no plans to meet with Judge Garland," said his spokeswoman, Caroline Rabbitt.
McConnell didn't change his tune Tuesday when asked about possible cracks in his ranks concerning Garland. "It's safe to say there will not be hearings or votes," he said.
Pressed on the growing number of Republicans like Collins who have held or plan to hold meetings with Garland, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said leadership hasn't changed their mind.
"What you're seeing is different approaches with regard to meetings, which won't lead to a hearing, which won't lead to a vote," Cornyn told reporters. "All I got back home was essentially a reinforcement of our current position."
Republicans who believe GOP leaders should meet Garland have noted that the next president -- whom McConnell has decided should fill the vacancy -- could well be another Democrat working with a more Democratic Senate, and could pick a more liberal replacement.
"It would be ironic if the next president happens to be a Democrat and chooses someone who is far to Judge Garland's left," Collins said. "We don't really know what's going to happen in this very strange political year, so I think what we should do is follow the normal process with the nominee that has been sent up by the president."
The Maine senator would not predict whether her position would prevail, but suggested that more meetings with Garland could convince senators to ensure that a moderate judge takes Scalia's spot, instead of someone who is more liberal.
"I am not optimistic that I will be changing minds on this issue, but I think if more of my colleagues sit down with Judge Garland, they will be impressed with him," Collins said.
This story has been updated to include comments from Earnest, Cotton, McConnell and Cornyn.
Jennifer Bendery and Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.