A few weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Grassley was travelling around his home state of Iowa with his fingers jammed deep in his ears while yelling “LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” to any constituents who wanted to voice a negative opinion about his role in refusing to hold confirmation hearings for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to replace the recently deceased Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. That’s some constituent service he’s running from his Iowa offices! Maybe he should save some money by closing the offices and just tattooing the words “Blow Me” on his forehead like an old white version of Bill O’Reilly’s worst nightmares.
Despite his efforts to wall himself off from criticism, Grassley did hear some negative reactions from his constituents during his town halls. Perhaps mindful of the fact that he’s up for re-election in November in what could be a tough year for Republicans, by the time he came back to Washington, the senator had changed his tune. Slightly.
Now Grassley said he was at least willing to meet with Garland to explain to him why it is simply impossible for the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on a judicial nominee to the nation’s highest court. This sounded like the most condescending reason possible to hold a meeting, though I imagine condescension is par for the course when Chuck Grassley, an 82-year-old man who has been in the Senate for three and a half decades, agrees to meet with anyone to explain his actions on any issue. Mere mortals cannot be expected to comprehend the ancient rules and customs guiding the Senate on SCOTUS nominations. (Which the GOP just started making up.) They must be explained to people like Garland, just in case the judge has been in a deep coma since 2008 and only woke up the morning Obama nominated him.
So Tuesday morning, the senator and the Supreme Court nominee met for breakfast in the Senate Dining Room so that Grassley could explain in person what he and most of his caucus have been saying in the press since the minute Scalia’s body was found in that ranch guest room in Texas. By all accounts it was a pleasant meeting. The New York Times reported that Grassley ordered oatmeal while Garland had eggs and toast. The senator even posted a picture on Instagram of the two men apparently chatting calmly and not throwing silverware at each other. Amid all the pearl-clutching by the press and calls for a return to civility in Washington, here was proof that two high-profile members of the government on opposite sides of an issue could still sit down and have a frank discussion where a member of the legislative branch explained the concept of separation of powers to a member of the judicial branch.
Sarcasm aside, it’s hilarious to contemplate why Grassley bothered to go through the motions of meeting with Garland. Mitch McConnell and the rest of the GOP’s Senate leadership put the caucus out on a ledge by announcing from the very beginning that Obama shouldn’t even bother sending a nomination up to the Hill, since they intended to ignore it like an unpopular kid at recess. As with so much else that Republicans have done since this president came into office, they left themselves exactly zero room to maneuver or negotiate. Backing away from that position now puts them all in trouble with the crazed GOP base, which is already frothing at the mouth over rumors that the party is going to snatch the presidential nomination away from frontrunner Donald Trump at the convention in July.
On the other hand, the GOP knows its Senate majority is in trouble this fall. Aside from the fact that this cycle just happens to have a bunch of vulnerable seats up for re-election in purplish and blue states, there is the possibility that the nomination of Trump – and to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz – will deeply harm down-ballot candidates everywhere, to the point where Democrats have a chance at the previously unthinkable, significantly cutting into the GOP’s 30-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Beyond that, there is polling and anecdotal evidence suggesting that this Supreme Court obstructionism has been a bridge too far for the general public. Add it all up, and senators up for re-election, like Grassley, might feel as if they are in a precarious position.
Had the Republicans at least allowed Garland a hearing and then voted not to confirm him, instead of announcing their plans to not even grant that courtesy at the beginning like the villain in an action movie explaining his evil plan to the hero instead of just carrying the damn thing out, Grassley wouldn’t be in this spot. So his compromise is to give Garland the courtesy of a meeting, but only so he can condescend to the judge about why the only way he’ll see the inside of the Supreme Court building is if he sits in the gallery for oral arguments some time. That way he can tell his most fervent anti-Obama constituents that he is still standing up to the president while pretending for the benefit of less-crazy voters that he has discovered a reserve of reasonable comity buried somewhere in his blackened soul.
Will it work? Well, Grassley’s poll numbers in Iowa, at least as of a month ago, hadn’t yet slipped badly. And Iowa is the state that just a couple of years ago sent this person to the Senate. So we will see. Personally, if I’m Garland, I’m not packing up my office at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals just yet.