Chuck Grassley isn’t budging.
The grizzled Iowa Republican senator who chairs the Judiciary Committee has been at the center of a storm of pressure from the White House, Democrats and grassroots activists across the country to get him to crack and allow the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland to go forward.
But Grassley – smiling, relaxed and busy at the Capitol – appears more at peace with Senate Republicans’ total blockade of hearings and votes for Garland after a few weeks back in Iowa facing numerous questions at town halls about his position. The "do your job" taunts from Democrats don’t appear to be fazing him.
"It kind of tickles me, see, ‘Do your job.’ I tell my town meetings I get to the office at 6 in the morning and leave at 7:15 in the afternoon, and I tell ’em that you’ve got 2,000 senators have served since 1789 and I’m the only one of the 2,000 that has gone 22 years and 5 months without missing a vote," Grassley said in an interview. "And when I’m in Iowa for 36 years I’ve held a town meeting in every county, 51 so this year. I think I’m pretty busy."
The 82-year-old Grassley keeps up a punishing schedule. On a typical day in Washington, he goes to bed at 9 p.m., wakes up at 4 a.m., runs three miles, gets to the office by 6 a.m. and works until the evening.
Grassley has agreed to meet with Garland — for breakfast — next week as a courtesy. But the senator said he plans on using the meeting to reiterate why he will not grant Garland an appearance before his committee or allow his confirmation to move forward — the same stance as almost all of the other Republicans who have agreed to a meeting.
President Barack Obama will use a speech in Chicago Thursday afternoon to put additional pressure on Republicans to give Garland a hearing and a vote. Even if the president doesn’t mention Grassley by name, his message will be aimed squarely at the Iowa senator.
And Grassley acknowledged that his stance could make his re-election more difficult, with Democrats starting to eye him as vulnerable.
"I’m going to have to work hard, but it doesn’t matter about the election. You’ve got to do what’s right," Grassley said. And for him, that means blocking Garland, who could swing the court in a liberal direction for years to come relative to the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
"In my open town meetings, I had contentious questions, but the meeting was not contentious and everybody was civil," Grassley said.
Grassley, who has represented Iowa in Congress since 1974, remains a popular figure in his home state. The long-time farmer, who still frequently drives a tractor on his family’s 700-acre farm, won his House seat in 1974, just months after President Richard Nixon’s resignation over the Watergate scandal. He moved up to the Senate in 1980 and his Senate re-election contests have long been routine.
The Garland fight could add some unexpected drama to his race this year. But he said he returned from his recent encounters with Iowa voters even more resolved to hold firm.
"I came away from those meetings feeling positive about the position we had taken before the recess," Grassley said Thursday during a meeting of the Judiciary Committee. "In other words, the recess reinforced my thinking."
Asked in a separate interview how firm he is, he said, "I guess as firm as 41 Republicans," referring to the number of senators needed to block action on the Senate floor. He added that 52 of the 54 Republicans in the Senate remain solidly against holding hearings and "I expect it to stay at 52."
That includes Jerry Moran of Kansas, who flip-flopped last week on the hearings question and was the target of a fierce backlash from conservatives after his brief apostasy.
Grassley, for his part, hasn’t swayed from the letter signed by all of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee opposing any Obama pick.
"The only answer I can give you is to be consistent in what our letter said, that we think a new president ought to make the selection," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been vocal in backing Grassley as a key ally in the blockade of Garland.
"Senator Grassley is passionate about giving the people of this country a voice in such a critical conversation," McConnell said Thursday morning on the Senate floor. "He’s stood strong for the people throughout this debate."
Grassley’s committee has been churning out bills, some of which have garnered overwhelming bipartisan support on the floor -- including one on opioid abuse and another on trade secrets.
"That isn’t the only the thing I’ve got to do," Grassley said of dealing with the nonstop Supreme Court questions. But, he added, "That’s the way it is."