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Republican senator blasts GOP leaders for inaction on Supreme Court nominee

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 9: Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) attends the unveiling of a multi-state program to combat opioid abuse in the U.S. at a Walgreens store on February 9, 2016 in Washington, DC. More than 500 Walgreens drugstores will have safe medication disposal kiosks installed, and livesaving opioid antidote naloxone will be made available without prescription in 35 states throughout the U.S. (Photo by Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Sen. Mark Kirk, the first Republican senator to call for confirmation hearings and a vote on embattled Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland, blasted the GOP leadership on Tuesday for refusing to act on the nomination.

“We need rational, adult, open-minded consideration of the constitutional process, which Judge Garland is part of,” the Illinois Republican said. “He’s been dually nominated by the elected president of the United States to fill a vacancy which we know exists on the court, and we need open-minded, rational, responsible people to keep an open mind to make sure the process works,” Kirk said.

The blunt comments came during a photo opportunity with Garland in Kirk’s Capitol Hill office. He is the first Republican to meet one-on-one with Garland since the judge was selected by President Barack Obama to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Most Senate Republicans say a nomination to replace Scalia should be made next year by whoever wins the White House this fall. Many Republicans have also refused to meet with Garland, who was selected two weeks ago.

“I think when you just say, ‘I’m not going to meet with him,’ that’s too close-minded,” Kirk said.

Kirk, a freshman, is one of the most vulnerable Republicans running for re-election in Democratic-leaning Illinois. He is running against Rep. Tammy Duckworth, a two-term House member and wounded war veteran. His openness to Garland could play well with swing voters there as both Obama and Garland also are from Illinois.

Kirk was asked if he would vote for Garland.

“Obviously, I would consider voting for him,” he said. “That’s the whole purpose.”

Senate GOP leaders were not fazed by Kirk’s criticism. They believe his outlier position is good for his re-election effort and that most Republicans are standing by the leadership position that the Senate shouldn’t act now on a nominee.

The Kirk session with Garland was a highpoint for Democrats who are pursuing an aggressive political and public relations strategy to pressure individual senators to agree to a confirmation for the judge. Democrats hope it will compel other Republicans to open their doors first to a meeting with Garland and eventually to a vote on his confirmation.

Kirk was asked if there was more he could do to push for action on the nominee.

“I think I’m doing it by being first,” Kirk said. “I understand that about 15 or 16 Republicans are thinking about meeting with Judge Garland, and by leading by example, what a rational responsible guy would do that really wants the constitutional process to go forward.”

A handful of other Republicans have said they will meet with the judge but only Kirk and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is also a moderate Republican, have backed a full confirmation process going forward.

Turning to issues important to his constituents, Kirk said he wanted to use his meeting with Garland to discuss ways to use racketeering laws to go after drug gangs in Chicago, where 32 shootings occurred over the Easter weekend, “so it’s not the headquarters of Murder, Incorporated.”

Progressives uneasy with Garland pick

While Garland has drawn heavy criticism from the conservatives for his positions on gun control and executive branch authority, he has also gotten complaints from progressives who say he is not liberal enough.

One sign of that concern was on display at an event at the University of Denver Law School last week, where Bennet was asked about Garland’s stance on the controversial 2010 Citizens United campaign finance reform case that opened the door to large scale donations to political organizations from corporations and labor unions, something many Democrats oppose.

While Garland didn’t rule directly on Citizens United, he did join eight other circuit court judges in expanding its scope later that year in Speechnow vs. Federal Election Commission, which allowed individuals to make unlimited donations to political organizations. The case led to the surge of super PACs that now dominate elections.

“I have not read his opinion, his wrongheaded opinion in Citizens United. I haven’t read it. Obviously, I won’t comment on it except that it’s one of the opinions that I’m going to read before I sit down to talk to him,” Bennet said. “I have read the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and I think it’s been a devastating blow to our democracy.”

Video of his remarks were covertly recorded and provided to CNN by a tracker for America Rising, a conservative political organization that says it is committed to “exposing the truth about Democratic politicians.”

Bennet’s criticism of Garland’s views in this case may appeal to the liberals in his state he needs to win re-election this fall. Bennet is considered the most vulnerable Democrat running in a purple state, which two years ago tossed out a big name incumbent Democrat, Sen. Mark Udall, in favor of a conservative Republican.

Bennet, who otherwise has been laudatory of Garland, has been very involved in campaign finance issues as he used to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which raises money and works to elect Democrats to the Senate.

Adam Bozzi, a spokesman for Bennet, wouldn’t elaborate on the senator’s concerns about Garland’s position but said that Bennet “disagrees with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and attempts to expand it generally” and that he “looks forward to reading the decision, meeting with him and learning more specifics” from the judge.

Garland also met Monday morning with Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat. During a photo-opportunity for journalists, an alarm sounded from U.S. Capitol Police saying it was conducting a “shelter-on-place” drill and that no one should leave their offices. Donnelly apologized to Garland for the loud disruption that and said “it just happens to coincide” with the judge’s visit.

The drill foreshadowed a real shelter-in-place occurrence later in the day when a gunmen tried to enter the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center and was shot by police.

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