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Obama Begins Court Vetting

President Seeks Senate Input

It’s official: President Barack Obama has moved the Supreme Court nomination process to the top of his priority list, packing his schedule with phone calls to key Senators and informal meetings with potential nominees in the lead-up to announcing his final selection in the next few weeks.

A bipartisan meeting with Senate leaders on Wednesday set the tone for how Obama plans to proceed: quickly, thoroughly and with Republican involvement. And the president is exuding increasing confidence that by the August recess he will be able to fill the seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens.

“Last time the nomination went up at the end of May. We are certainly going to meet that deadline, and we hope maybe we can accelerate it a little bit so that we have some additional time. But my hope is that we’re going to be able to get a Supreme Court nominee confirmed in time for the next session,” Obama said before Wednesday’s meeting.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) left the White House session saying the president conveyed “a really good tone” and told all participants to “just call him directly” with any suggestions for nominees.

The two Republicans in the meeting, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (Ala.), issued a joint statement afterward vowing to treat Obama’s candidate for the high court “fairly” but cautioned him against letting politics factor into his decision. Republicans have made it clear that they want Obama to choose a moderate to replace the liberal Stevens.

[IMGCAP(1)]”A Supreme Court justice must not be a rubberstamp or policy arm for any Administration,” they said.

Sessions later called the meeting “constructive” and said Obama cited last year’s high court nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor as an example of a positive confirmation process. The president “thanked us for the way we did that last year and said he thought that was a good hearing,” Sessions said.

Obama did not give Senators a specific date for announcing his selection, although he said he “hoped to have the nomination to us a little earlier than he did last year,” Sessions said. Obama announced Sotomayor’s nomination on May 26 last year.

The timing could give Obama some trouble from Republicans who want to ensure that sufficient time is spent vetting the nominee. Republicans complained mightily during Sotomayor’s nomination that Democrats were trying to rush the confirmation process.

“Speed for speed’s sake is not good. We want to approach the process responsibly and make sure you have the time to do it right,” one Senate GOP aide said.

Several names have been floated as leading contenders for the high court slot, namely Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appeals court Judges Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas. Obama has begun talking with candidates in an informal manner, although he did not discuss any names in his meeting with Senators.

Not that Senate leaders aren’t putting forward ideas of their own. Reid said he encouraged the president to pick someone who is an academic and who has held public office. And Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) made no qualms about backing a liberal nominee to balance what he considers a right-leaning court.

“We have right now a very, very activist — conservative activist — Supreme Court,” Leahy said, pointing to high-profile cases that were recently decided on a one-vote margin, such as the Lily Ledbetter case involving equal pay and the campaign finance reform Citizens United case.

Those decisions do “not reflect the American people. It reflects more of a partisan agenda. I would hope that the president’s nominee can get us back away from that and reflect the American people,” Leahy said.

While Reid and Leahy pressed Obama to pick an individual that does not come from the judiciary, some Republicans are privately concerned that a nominee without a judicial paper trail could ignite a partisan war that neither side is looking for in an election year.

“It is hard to imagine a quicker way to politicize a process than to appoint a politician. That’s like setting a stick of dynamite in a room full of sparklers,” one Senate GOP aide said.

In addition to meeting with Senate leaders, Obama spent Wednesday afternoon on the phone with nine Judiciary Committee members — including three Republicans — to discuss the vacancy.

“The president and I had a positive conversation this morning, and I encouraged him to nominate someone who could receive wide, bipartisan support in the United States Senate,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), one of the Republicans who spoke to Obama. The other two Republicans were Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Graham said his conversation with the president didn’t get into specifics. Graham was the lone Republican to vote for Sotomayor’s confirmation in the Judiciary Committee.

“I gave him my two cents worth,” he said, adding that even though Obama’s nominee will likely be left-of-center, he “just needs to be qualified and not an ideologue.”

For now, Obama appears intent on keeping a tight lid on which nominees he is homing in on, in part because he is still expanding his list of potential candidates.

“I would still consider the process not one that’s winnowing,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday. “We’re fairly early in this process, and I think the team here wants to provide the president with as many options as is possible.”

Senate Republicans also are keeping an arm’s length from the names of potential nominees or offering up any specific criteria that they are looking for in the next Supreme Court justice.

“Until we have a nominee, I’m not going to comment. It would all be speculation,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said.

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