WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated Merrick B. Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, choosing a widely respected appeals court judge in hopes his choice will be considered by the Republican-led Senate.
The longtime Washington lawyer and judge was a finalist for the first two Supreme Court vacancies filled by Obama.
The 63-year-old graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997. He was confirmed to the post with some Republican support on a 76-23 vote.
Garland, now the chief judge of the appellate court, is a former Justice Department official considered a centrist, especially on law enforcement issues.
"He was always there to remind us to do what was right and just," said lawyer Beth Wilkinson, who prosecuted the Oklahoma City bombers under Garland's supervision in the 1990s. "It wasn't just words for him, he always figured out how to vigorously prosecute the case, honor the victims and give each defendant a fair trial."
Any Supreme Court nomination has already been whistled dead by key Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Republicans control the judiciary panel with an 11-9 majority, and its members include some of Obama's most strident critics, such as Texas senator and presidential contender Ted Cruz. The hard-right conservatives will limit the GOP leadership's maneuvering room.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who breached his party's orthodoxy to vote for Obama's first two Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, has been among the few GOP members to suggest possible compromise.
"I voted for Sotomayor and Kagan not because I would have picked them, but because I thought the president of the United States deserves the right to pick judges of their philosophy, and that goes with winning the White House," Graham told his judiciary committee colleagues last week.
Still, Graham's relative open-mindedness seems the exception to most Republicans' determination to block Obama, promising a battle of both wills and tactics that will play out through the November election, and possibly beyond.
In particular, Obama's supporters and opponents alike will be targeting potentially vulnerable Republican senators who are running for re-election in swing states including Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network, for one, has already begun what it says will be a "seven-figure television, radio and digital advertising campaign," urging senators to delay. The group's chief counsel, Carrie Severino, said the ads will encourage "senators who would be targeted by Democrats."
From the other side, epitomizing the kind of targeted public lobbying that will explode in coming months, the Center for American Progress Action Fund this week organized a media event effectively spotlighting Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is running for re-election.
While the Senate Republican leaders seem to have locked themselves in place, some more fluid scenarios could develop after the November election. If the Republican candidate wins, of course, Obama's nomination dies on the vine.
But if the Democratic nominees wins, especially if that presidential victory is accompanied by a Democratic swell in Senate races, GOP lawmakers could, in theory, calculate that they're better off letting Obama's pick through in a lame-duck session than awaiting a new choice next year.
©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau