WASHINGTON — Pushing forward with one of his most consequential decisions, President Barack Obama has begun informal talks with potential nominees for the Supreme Court. And now he is reaching out to the senators who will control the confirmation fight ahead.
Obama was to meet Wednesday with the top Democrat and Republican in the Senate, along with leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as he launches a period of political protocol that comes with each high court nomination. The White House says the point is for Obama to get advice from the senators on how to proceed and even ideas of people to consider, but his goal is also to show bipartisanship, even if the debate to follow is almost sure to have a divided tone.
At the White House, Obama will gather with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee.
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Within a few weeks, Obama is expected to announce a nominee to replace longtime Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring this summer. This is Obama’s second chance in less than a year to name someone to the Supreme Court, a presidential prerogative that could put his imprint on the judicial branch for decades. Stevens announced his retirement plans on April 9, and Obama is still believed to be in the early stages of making his decision.
The nominee will be subject to Senate confirmation.
Obama has begun conversations with potential nominees, a senior administration official said Tuesday, signaling an upswing in the president’s consideration of an already coalescing list of about 10 candidates. Those discussions have not been formal interviews, the administration official emphasized, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of Obama’s deliberations. In his search last year, Obama ultimately did four face-to-face interviews with finalists.
He ended up choosing federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter. Sotomayor’s confirmation was a largely partisan summertime battle, with most Republicans objecting to her and to Obama’s standards for choosing justices in general. The Senate vote was 68-31, with nine Republicans in favor.
So far, the early signs of ideological divide are the same.
Many Republican senators are wary that Obama will seek out a judicial activist who will bring a liberal agenda to the bench, and the White House already is expecting what chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called a “huge, huge battle” from Republicans over whomever Obama picks. The president says he will choose someone with the expected credentials of a strong record and dedication to the rule of law, plus an understanding of how court rulings affect people in real life.
With 59 usually reliable votes from Democrats and independents in the Senate, Obama is in a strong position to pick the person he wants. He would need 60 votes to head off a filibuster. Obama aides are confident that they can get that support and that Republicans won’t go that route anyway.
Among the people Obama is considering for the court are federal appeals court judges Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas, former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow.