President Barack Obama on Tuesday vowed to pick an indisputably qualified nominee to the Supreme Court and urged the Republican-led U.S. Senate to move forward on the nomination despite the rancor of Washington politics.
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Obama did not promise to nominate a moderate to fill the vacancy left by Saturday's death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia even as the Senate's Republican leaders pledged to block any nominee the Democratic president selects.
"The Constitution is pretty clear about what is supposed to happen now," Obama, a former constitutional law professor, told a news conference at the close of a two-day meeting with leaders from Southeast Asia.
"When there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the president of the United States is to nominate someone. The Senate is to consider that nomination," and then either approve or reject the nominee, Obama added.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Saturday the vacancy should not be filled until Obama's successor takes office in January so voters can have a say on the selection when they cast ballots in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
"There is more than enough time for the Senate to consider in a thoughtful way the record of a nominee that I present, and to make a decision," Obama said.
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His nominee could shift the court's balance of power. It had five conservatives and four liberals before Scalia's death.
"We're going to find somebody who is an outstanding legal mind, somebody who cares deeply about our democracy and cares about rule of law," Obama said, without giving any hints on who he might nominate or the specific timing.
"I'm going to present somebody who indisputably is qualified for the seat, and any fair-minded person, even somebody who disagrees with my politics, would say would serve with honor and integrity on the court," he added.
Republicans control the Senate, which the U.S. Constitution assigns responsibility for confirming a president's nomination to the court. Republicans have opposed nearly all of Obama's major initiatives during the first seven years of his presidency, and filling the court vacancy is shaping up as a monumental election-year fight.
'GETTING BASIC WORK DONE'
Obama complained that the Senate had obstructed nominees he has put forward for other posts and lamented that "the venom and rancor in Washington has prevented us from getting basic work done. Now, this would be a good moment for us to rise above that."
Republican Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, whose panel weighs Supreme Court nominations, said on Tuesday he will wait until Obama names his pick to fill the vacancy before deciding whether to hold confirmation hearings.
Grassley has offered mixed messages since Scalia's death on how the Senate should proceed on the vacancy, alternating hardline views on blocking any nominee with comments not ruling out hearings.
"I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions" about confirmation hearings, Grassley said, according to Radio Iowa. "In other words, take it a step at a time."
Senator Patrick Leahy, the committee's top Democrat, prodded Republicans to act on whomever Obama nominates for a lifetime appointment to the court.
While the House plays no role in confirming Supreme Court nominees, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan supported the idea of blocking any nominee offered by Obama.
"The president has absolutely every right to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, but Congress as an equal branch also has every right not to confirm someone," Ryan said in interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece that if Senate Republicans block consideration of any Obama nominee, "they will ensure that this Republican majority is remembered as the most nakedly partisan, obstructionist and irresponsible majority in history."
A court statement said Scalia's funeral Mass will be held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Saturday. A court spokeswoman said Scalia's body will lie in repose at the Supreme Court building on Friday.
Scalia's chair in the court's ornate chamber has been draped with black wool crepe in accordance with court tradition following a justice's death.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Lawrence Hurley, Richard Cowan, Julia Edwards and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)