WASHINGTON — In choosing a centrist judge with Republican appeal, President Barack Obama hoped to corner GOP opponents who pledge to block his Supreme Court pick. He also boxed in the Democrats vying to succeed him.
For Hillary Clinton, locked in a fight for the hearts of progressive voters, Merrick Garland's nomination presents a political puzzle. She had no choice but to embrace the mild-mannered moderate whom Democrats plan to make into a symbol of Republican obstruction. But she does not want to hold him so close that she angers the party's left, wary of Garland and worried the party may end up forfeiting a chance to install a more liberal justice on the court.
Clinton's dilemma was evident in her campaign's cautious reaction to Obama's choice. In a statement, she mentioned Garland's "considerable experience" both in the judiciary and in public service, his "brilliant legal mind" and past achievement of "bipartisan support and admiration."
But her campaign would not say whether she would commit to Garland for the long haul, arguing that Republicans won't be able to sustain denying the judge a Senate vote. Clinton's campaign said it was unlikely there will still be a vacancy when she wins the White House — sidestepping the issue of whether she would nominate him if elected.
It's a pressing question for liberals who are concerned Republicans may delay Garland's nomination through the election — to please their base — but then move to quickly confirm the judge before a new Democratic president takes office to avoid a more liberal nominee in 2017.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal favorite, addressed those worries directly. Sanders said Thursday that if he won the White House, he would ask Obama to withdraw Garland's nomination so he could make his own choice.
Garland "would not have been my nominee," Sanders said in an interview with The Associated Press, though he also said Garland had an "incredibly strong judicial record" and he would support him.
Garland was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by Clinton's husband, Bill, in 1997. But Clinton has said she has "a bunch of litmus tests" for her potential nominees, including assurance that the Roe v. Wade abortion decision "is settled law," support for the Voting Rights Act and a commitment to try to overturn the Citizens United campaign finance ruling. Interest groups say Garland's record is inconclusive on those issues.
"Hillary Clinton believes he is a brilliant jurist and the Republicans have no credible reason not to confirm him," Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said.
The White House has maintained that the political concerns of his potential successors did not factor into Obama's choice. Aides have said he did not consult with either campaign in his deliberations.
Still, there's little doubt Obama weighed the political impact. He twice considered and passed over Garland when selecting a nominee to face a Democratic-led Senate. This time, Obama picked the finalist best poised to win Republican support.
"By choosing him and by choosing somebody who Republicans have acknowledged is a consensus nominee and belongs on the court, we've also made it easier for Republicans to fulfill their constitutional duty in a way that doesn't require them to compromise," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
While progressive organizations are pushing Senate Republicans to allow Obama's nominee to receive a full hearing and a vote, they've made it clear Garland was hardly their top pick and a confirmation in a post-election, lame-duck session — if Democrats win the White House and Senate control — would amount to a pyrrhic victory.
"Garland is not just an olive branch he's an olive tree," said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He predicted a "growing crescendo of voices saying that no action should happen in a lame duck" session if Garland's nomination is still pending.
Neither the White House nor Democratic leaders in Congress are ruling out a lame-duck confirmation. Doing so would take away a key bit of leverage.
Neera Tanden, a Clinton ally and president of the Center for American Progress, said progressive groups are united in insisting Republicans confirm Garland. "There's no reason why they can't act on this nomination two weeks from now rather than five to seven months from now," she said.
Progressive groups say they're hoping Garland gets a hearing so they can make a determination for themselves. His record on the bench leaves little firm indication on whether he would support such causes as overturning Citizens United.
Garland was involved in two campaign finance cases. In one, he upheld a 70-year-old ban on campaign contributions from federal contractors. In the other, he sided with a unanimous decision to strike down limits.
For now, progressive groups say they are focused on the more immediate task — hammering Republicans for holding up the process.
"Senate Republicans have to absolutely do their jobs," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director for Democracy for America, which is supporting Sanders. But he added: "Do I wish we had a better nominee? Yes."
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.