As key Republicans sounded a partial retreat Tuesday from a vow to not even consider a Supreme Court nomination this year, President Obama said he expected the Senate to do its duty by voting to confirm or reject the candidate he names to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Invoking the renowned conservative justice's legal philosophy, Obama said he would follow the words and "original intent" of the Constitution by choosing a well-qualified nominee, despite Republican calls that he leave the decision until after the presidential election so that his successor can fill the seat.
The president said he was amused that Republicans who called themselves "strict interpreters of the Constitution" were suddenly citing unwritten precedent about not confirming justices during an election year to justify their position.
"It's pretty hard to find that in the Constitution," Obama said during a news conference in Rancho Mirage after a two-day summit with Southeast Asian leaders. "The Constitution is pretty clear about what is supposed to happen now."
Obama acknowledged that Scalia's replacement could change the balance of the court, but he challenged Republicans to put aside partisan considerations.
"It's the one court where we would expect elected officials to rise above day-to-day politics, and this will be the opportunity for senators to do their job," he said. "I expect them to hold hearings. I expect there to be a vote. Full stop."
Obama's comments came hours after two key Senate Republicans voiced reservations about Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's suggestion over the weekend that there should be no nomination process during an election year. Strategists said GOP leaders may have made a tactical mistake that could trigger a public backlash.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the 82-year-old Iowa Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that he may be open to holding hearings on Obama's nominee.
"I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions.... In other words, take it a step at a time," he told radio reporters in Iowa.
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina warned that if fellow Republicans rejected an Obama nominee "sight unseen," they would "fall into the trap of being obstructionists."
Three days earlier, Grassley had insisted the "standard practice" was to not confirm new Supreme Court justices in an election year. "It only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president" in November, he said.
Legal experts, however, cite more than half a dozen examples since 1900 of justices being confirmed during a presidential election year.
Grassley was among the 97 senators who voted unanimously to confirm Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in February 1988, the final year of President Reagan's term. He filled a vacancy that arose in June 1987 when Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. retired. Reagan chose Kennedy in late November after Judge Robert Bork was defeated in the Senate.
Obama said there is nothing in the Constitution to suggest the president's nominee should not be considered and voted on in his last year in the White House. "Historically, this has not been viewed as a question," he said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the Senate's tradition was to approve qualified "mainstream candidates."
"Every single senator has a right to vote no on any given nominee," he said in a statement. "But the wisdom of the Founding Fathers dictates that we should go through the full vetting and confirmation process so that we and the nation can determine whether those candidates are out of the mainstream in this ideological era."
White House aides say the president and his team have just begun to consider nominees for the high court, and they do not expect an announcement for at least several weeks.
The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that Scalia's body would lie in repose in the Great Hall of the court Friday. His funeral Mass will be held Saturday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Savage reported from Washington and Parsons from Rancho Mirage.
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.
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