Obama vows to fill vacancy on Supreme Court, setting up clash with Republicans

President Obama said he would make his third nomination to the Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and called for a “timely vote” in a Senate led by Republicans who have said the choice should be left for the next president.

“I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time,” Obama told reporters from a hotel in Rancho Mirage, where he is set to host a summit of Asian leaders this week.

“These are responsibilities that I take seriously, as should everyone,” he continued. “They are bigger than any one party. They are about our democracy, and they’re about the institution to which Justice Scalia dedicated his professional life, and making sure it continues to function as the beacon of justice that our founders envisioned.”

Scalia’s unexpected passing set up a major confrontation between Obama and the Republican-led Senate over the president’s prerogative to make nominations to executive and judicial posts, a major flashpoint of his second term.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement earlier Saturday that “the American people‎ should have a voice” in the process, and the vacancy should be filled by the winner of the November election.

After Obama’s reelection in 2012, Republicans used tactics available to the Senate minority to delay or block consideration of several of the president’s Cabinet, sub-Cabinet and judicial appointments. The then-Democratic majority ultimately invoked the so-called nuclear option to change Senate rules by simple majority vote to essentially end the filibuster power.

That change applied to all nominations except for those to the Supreme Court. Republicans now could simply refuse to even give the president’s nominee a hearing, let alone a vote.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would consider any pick, said in a statement that it has been “standard practice” for nearly 80 years that presidents not name Supreme Court choices in a presidential election year.

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“Given the huge divide in the country, and the fact that this president, above all others, has made no bones about his goal to use the courts to circumvent Congress and push through his own agenda, it only makes sense that we defer to the American people who will elect a new president to select the next Supreme Court justice,” he said.

The president has made two successful Supreme Court nominations: Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter in 2009, and Elena Kagan to replace John Paul Stevens in 2010. Both came when the Senate had a sizable Democratic majority.

In his brief statement, Obama spoke warmly of the conservative justice, who died Saturday at age 79, as a “larger-than-life presence on the bench,” and one of the “most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court.”

He noted that he had invited Scalia as a guest to a state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012.

Follow @mikememoli for more White House coverage.

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