Republican Collins urges Senate hearings on high court pick

A moderate Republican senator heaped praise on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee on Tuesday, bucking Senate Republican leaders in calling for confirmation hearings but saying she was not optimistic enough others in her party would agree.

Susan Collins of Maine became only the second Republican senator to meet with Merrick Garland since Obama nominated the centrist appellate judge last month to fill the court’s vacancy left by the Feb. 13 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The hourlong meeting came at a time when Republican senators are facing mounting pressure from conservative activists to go along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to block any nominee chosen by Obama.

“The meeting left me more convinced than ever that the process should proceed. The next step, in my view, should be public hearings before the Judiciary Committee,” Collins told reporters.

Collins called Garland “well-informed, thoughtful, impressive, extraordinarily bright and with a sensitivity” toward the roles assigned under the U.S. Constitution to the government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Garland met last week with Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who called fellow Republicans “closed-minded” for refusing to consider the nomination.

McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley have shut the door on hearings or a vote to confirm Garland. They have said Obama’s successor, who will be elected on Nov. 8 and take office on Jan. 20, should fill the vacancy.

Grassley has invited Garland to a breakfast meeting to explain in person why he will not hold hearings, a Grassley spokeswoman said on Monday.

Collins said she was not optimistic she would be able to sway enough of her fellow Republicans to begin a formal confirmation process during this volatile and unpredictable presidential and congressional election year.

The court is evenly split 4-4 between conservatives and liberals following Scalia’s death, meaning his successor could influence its ideological direction for years to come.

Republican Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, set to meet next week with Garland, said if a Democrat wins the presidential election, Garland should be confirmed by the Senate “in a heartbeat” during a post-election legislative session.

Some Republicans are concerned that Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, would select a more liberal nominee than Garland.

Flake’s fellow Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham dismissed the idea of such a “lame-duck” session to confirm Garland.

“Absolutely not,” the South Carolina Republican said, adding, “I don’t think that’s fair to the (presidential election) winner. Let’s see what the Democrats say if Hillary Clinton wins.”

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Will Dunham)