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Sweet: The GOP’s Garland blockade: ‘It’s personal’

Judge Merrick Garland (left) meets with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. | Scott Applewhite/AP

WASHINGTON — Of course it’s personal.

President Barack Obama returns to the University of Chicago Law School on Thursday to make the case for Republicans to give his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing and a vote. He will deliver high-road comments about the court and the nation’s judicial system.

But let’s not kid ourselves about why Republicans are blocking Garland. It’s about Obama.

Garland, a Chicago native raised in suburban Lincolnwood, made a courtesy call on Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday, one of a series of meetings with senators, so far, mainly Democrats.

Durbin’s chat with Garland, a federal appellate judge here, was not entirely centered on jurisprudence. Garland, a 1970 graduate of Niles West High School in Skokie, told Durbin about childhood vacations at Starved Rock and Lake Geneva and growing up a Cubs fan.

Durbin, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — whose chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, refuses to hold a hearing on Garland’s confirmation — gave Garland a copy of “Taming the Storm” by Jack Bass. It’s the story of a federal judge, Frank Johnson Jr., and his groundbreaking civil rights decisions.

OPINION

Afterward, Durbin met with reporters and blasted Senate Republican leaders for ignoring, in his opinion, the Constitution “they swore to protect and defend,” noting that in the nation’s history, every presidential nominee to the Supreme Court has been given a hearing.

What’s behind it? Disrespect for the Constitution and the presidency, Durbin said.

There’s more.

I asked Durbin: “I know you are framing this in terms of the history of the court, the reputation of the Judiciary Committee. But how personal is this really?”

It seems to me it’s about GOP Senate leaders ongoing inability to accept that Obama has twice been elected president.

Durbin replied: “I’ll say what the president probably will not say.

“I believe it’s personal. I think it’s a decision made by the Republicans to deny to President Obama his authority, his constitutional opportunity, to fill this vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t think the president will ever say that, Lynn.”

It’s obviously not about Garland.

That’s because hours after Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Obama not to send the Senate a nominee, even though there was almost a year left in his term. McConnell shows no sign of budging.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and two other Republican senators so far have met with Garland, with at least five more in the pipeline. That includes Grassley, even as he continues to oppose Garland’s nomination.

Obama will keep the heat on Republicans when he appears with University of Chicago Law School Professor David Strauss in a session at the school, 1111 E. 60th St. Obama knows Strauss from his days teaching at the law school between 1992 and 2004, when he left to run for the Senate.

According to a White House official, the audience will be current law students, faculty, former Obama students, alumni and — this is interesting — a group of state and federal judges based in Chicago. Obama will make opening remarks, Strauss will question him and then the president will take questions from the audience.

One way to pressure Republicans leaders is to go over their heads and talk to GOP rank and file directly.

Toward that end, Obama, while at the U. of Chicago will tape an interview with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace. Wallace is a Chicago native who lived on the Near North Side until he was 7, returning in 1973 for his first television job at WBBM-Channel 2.

It’s a show Republicans watch. Said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, “It’s an opportunity to reach a new audience.”

A hearing and an up-or-down vote. Garland would have no guarantee of a win. How hard it that?

FOOTNOTE: Kirk was invited to join Obama on Air Force One when he flies to Chicago on Thursday, but declined due to votes, his office said. Durbin will travel to Chicago with the president.