WASHINGTON - Sen. Pat Toomey held firm to his stand Wednesday that the next president should fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, even as President Obama pushed a nominee to the fore.
With the court's "balance at stake, and with the presidential election fewer than eight months away, it is wise to give the American people a more direct voice," the Pennsylvania Republican said shortly after Obama nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Toomey said he would "be happy to carefully consider" Garland if the judge is nominated again by the next president.
The senator has become a key figure in a national battle over the court's vacancy, at the same time he heads into an already difficult reelection campaign.
Liberal groups have vowed to pressure Toomey to change his mind, or make him and other Senate Republicans pay a political price this fall in races in Pennsylvania and other moderate-to-blue states, such as Ohio and Illinois.
If Republicans "maintain this unprecedented level of obstruction and refuse to do their jobs, we'll make sure those Republican senators who are up for reelection this year, like Sen. Toomey, are replaced with people who will," said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, one of the groups leading the charge.
Protests are scheduled next week outside Toomey's Philadelphia and Pittsburgh offices.
Toomey's potential Democratic challengers have already pounced. One, Katie McGinty, launched a television ad Wednesday slamming him for "obstructionism."
(A Toomey campaign spokesman fired back that McGinty and fellow Democratic candidate Joe Sestak "would be a rubber stamp for any Obama nominee" and ensure that the high court swung liberal.)
Democrats believe they have a potent issue. Polls show a majority of Americans, including independents, say the Senate should act on an Obama nominee.
Conservative groups, however, are rallying support, calling for the GOP to deny Garland a hearing or confirmation vote.
"The best thing for the nation is to trust the American people to weigh in on who should make a lifetime appointment that could reshape the Supreme Court for generations," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which promised to spend $2 million on ads to promote its stance.
Toomey previously suggested that holding hearings or even meeting with a nominee would not make a difference, since his objection is not over any individual nominee but about potentially changing the court's balance so close to a presidential election.
The groups pressing him say they think voters will reject that position.
"There's an important distinction between voting no after a fair hearing . . . and refusing to even have a meeting," said John Neurohr of Why Courts Matter-PA.
Senate Democrats urged their Republican colleagues to act. "The American people expect us to do our job without delay and politically motivated excuses," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.).
The only local member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, said the coming months will "send a strong signal about whether our constitutional order can still function."