One of the few Republican senators to meet with Barack Obama’s supreme court nominee said she was now “more convinced than ever” that the US Senate should hold hearings on judge Merrick Garland.

Maine senator Susan Collins met with Garland on Tuesday and lavished praise on Obama’s pick to replace the late justice Antonin Scalia.

“I found judge Garland to be well-informed, thoughtful, impressive, extraordinarily bright and with a sensitivity that I look for [regarding the] appropriate roles that the constitution assigns to the three branches,” Collins told reporters following their sit-down.

“The meeting left me more convinced than ever that the process should proceed. The next step, in my view, should be public hearings.”

Collins’s comments came despite vows from Senate Republican leaders to hold firm against considering the nomination, a position that took hold even before Obama chose Garland, the chief judge of the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, as his nominee.

“I think it’s safe to say there will not be hearings or votes,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said at a press conference on Tuesday. “I think it’s also safe to say the next president, whoever that may be, is going to be the person who chooses the next supreme court justice.”

McConnell also downplayed any fissures within the Senate Republican conference over whether to allow the confirmation process to play out, even as a growing number of senators have said they would be willing to meet with Garland. Several Republicans, particularly those facing tough re-election battles this year, have faced escalating pressure to at least grant Garland full consideration.

But McConnell, addressing reporters on the chamber’s first day back in session after a two-week recess, insisted nothing had changed.

“There were 52 Republican senators who didn’t think we needed either hearings or a vote in committee. And today, two weeks later, we have 52 Republicans who think we don’t need either a hearing or a vote in committee,” he said.

The cracks have nonetheless spilled into public view, with some endangered Republican incumbents breaking from party leadership, among them Illinois senator Mark Kirk. After meeting with Garland last week, Kirk even said he would consider voting to confirm Obama’s nominee.

“I think we should be doing our job,” he said. “We need a rational, adult, open-minded consideration of the constitutional process.”

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, has remained steadfast in his opposition to holding hearings but said Monday he would invite Garland to breakfast to explain his position. Collins suggested Grassley might be persuaded to change his view upon meeting with Garland, emphasizing in particular the judge’s more centrist record.

“It would be ironic if the next president happens to be a Democrat and chooses someone who is far to Judge Garland’s left,” Collins said.

In remarks on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Grassley placed partial blame on the court itself, arguing the justices had “drifted from the constitutional text and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences”.

“In short, the justices themselves have gotten political,” Grassley said, before referencing chief justice John Roberts – who cast the deciding vote in 2012 to uphold Obama’s healthcare law – although not by name.

“Many of my constituents believe, with all due respect, that the chief justice is part of the problem. They believe that [a] number of his votes have reflected political considerations, not legal ones.”

He added: “The chief justice regrets that the American people believe that the court is no different from the political branches of government. But again, and with respect, I think he is concerned with the wrong problem.

“He would be well served to address the reality, not the perception, that too often there is little difference between the actions of the court and the actions of the political branches. So, physician, heal thyself.”

Most polling has shown that a majority of Americans believe the Senate should perform its duties by at least holding hearings on the nomination. Democrats are looking to seize on public opinion to make the supreme court battle a wedge issue in the 2016 elections, in which the party has an opportunity to regain control of the Senate.

“Conducting hearings on supreme court nominees is one of the core functions of this body and especially of the judiciary committee,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid told reporters on Tuesday. “Senator McConnell’s strategy of no meetings, no hearings, no vote is an untenable position.”

However, Republican voters support McConnell’s strategy of blocking Obama’s pick and outside conservative groups have compounded the pressure by indicating they will target those senators who fall out of line.

Arkansas senator John Boozman, who is also defending his seat this election cycle, sought to balance the competing tensions after also meeting with Garland on Tuesday.

“I strongly disagree with President Obama’s contention that the Senate must rubber-stamp his nominee in the final year of his presidency. However, I believe we can disagree without being disagreeable, which is why I accepted the request of the White House to meet with Judge Garland,” Boozman said in a statement.

During the meeting, which lasted just 20 minutes, Boozman said he conveyed to Garland that his position remained firm that the next president should fulfill the supreme court vacancy.

“That means I will not advocate for hearings or a vote, nor will I support filling the vacancy with President Obama’s pick after the election,” Boozman said.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said of the meetings with Kirk, Collins and Boozman: “These courtesy visits are an important step in the Senate confirmation process and represent opportunities for senators to have thoughtful, substantive conversations with Chief Judge Garland. We look forward to additional Senate meetings in the coming weeks.”

Obama will continue to push for Garland’s confirmation on Thursday during a discussion with law students and faculty at the University of Chicago, where he served as a professor and senior lecturer on constitutional law before he was elected to the US Senate in 2004.

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