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Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch's laudatory comments about Merrick Garland were front and center on Wednesday in the White House's efforts to point out that the Supreme Court nominee deserves hearings and a vote despite lockstep GOP opposition.
Announcing his high court choice, President Barack Obama singled out Hatch to call attention to the Utah Republican's praise of Garland previously as a "consensus nominee."
"Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, supported his nomination" to the D.C. Circuit Court, Obama said in his Rose Garden speech unveiling Garland as his choice to fill the vacancy created by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia's death.
"Back then, [Hatch] said, 'In all honesty, I would like to see one person come to this floor and say one reason why Merrick Garland does not deserve this position,' " Obama continued. "He actually accused fellow Senate Republicans trying to obstruct Merrick's confirmation of 'playing politics with judges.' And he has since said that Judge Garland would be a "consensus nominee" for the Supreme Court who 'would be very well supported by all sides,' and there would be 'no question' Merrick would be confirmed with bipartisan support."
On the other side, Republicans pointed to comments from then-Sen. Joe Biden, now Obama's vice president, arguing in 1992 against filling a Supreme Court vacancy during an election year.
"Then-Senator Biden said that the cost to the nation would be too great no matter who the president nominates," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "President Obama and his allies may now try to pretend this disagreement is about a person, but as I just noted, his own vice president made clear it's not. The Biden rule reminds us that the decision the Senate announced weeks ago remains about a principle, not a person."
In Washington, people's words come back to haunt them.
Obama's efforts to use Hatch's words in an attempt to point out the hypocrisy of Republicans blocking a nominee they previously supported and the Republicans' use of Biden's words to show the opposite foreshadow the political battle Garland's nomination will face this year during the presidential election.
Asked about Obama's reference, Hatch who has joined Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and fellow Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in a pledge against holding any confirmation hearings this year told reporters that he sees a big difference between a circuit court judge and a Supreme Court appointment.
"I think highly of him, but I haven't read his cases," Hatch said Wednesday, "and all I can say is I think the same argument stands that we should not be doing this in this toxic environment."
The Utah Republican did leave open the possibility of considering the nominee after the November general election but said the Supreme Court shouldn't be used as a "battering ball back and forth on both sides" and that next year is a better time to consider filling Scalia's seat.
Lee said in a statement, issued before Obama's Rose Garden announcement, that the president has the power to nominate, "but the Constitution also gives the Senate the full and complete power to reject or confirm the nominee. It's as simple as that."
Lee reaffirmed his opposition to any hearings on the nominee and added that the court has "very ably dealt with temporary absences in the past."
Hatch joined then-Sen. Bob Bennett to support Garland's appointment to the D.C. Circuit Court in 1997. He was approved by a 76-23 vote.
It was then that Hatch spoke fondly of Garland comments that were not only highlighted by Obama but also by the White House generally and other Democrats as they spoke Wednesday about the nomination.
"I know him personally, I know of his integrity, I know of his legal ability, I know of his honesty, I know of his acumen, and he belongs on the court," Hatch said then, referring to the D.C. Circuit Court. "I believe he is not only a fine nominee, but is as good as Republicans can expect from [the Clinton] administration. In fact, I would place him at the top of the list. There are some other very good people, so I don't mean to put them down, but this man deserves to be at the top of the list. Opposition to this nomination will only serve to undermine the credibility of our legitimate goal of keeping proven activists off the bench."
Wednesday, Hatch took to the Senate floor to say he still thinks highly of Garland but that his nomination doesn't change the politically divisive circumstances with the election.
"I remain convinced that the best way for the Senate to do its job is to conduct the confirmation process after this toxic presidential election season is over," Hatch said. "Doing so is the only way to ensure fairness to the nominee and preserve the integrity of the Supreme Court."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said it was "inexcusable and unacceptable" for Hatch and Lee to obstruct Obama's nomination.
"Judge Garland is a deserving nominee who was confirmed 20 years ago to the D.C. Circuit with support from both parties, including a vote of confidence from Senator Orrin Hatch himself," Corroon said. "Judge Garland is a conscientious jurist, someone Orrin Hatch described as a 'consensus nominee.'
It is clear that Lee and Hatch are once again placing the petty politics of an election year above their constitutional duties and above the interests of the American people, who deserve to have a fully functioning government," he said. "The president isn't taking any time off right now, and neither should our U.S. senators."