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GOP Preparing for Court Fight

Senate Republicans and conservative organizations got to work Friday on their battle plan for President Barack Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court — compiling dossiers on likely candidates, developing strategies for the vetting process and powering up their network of grass-roots activists.

Even before Justice David Souter’s surprise decision to retire from the high court was formally announced, conservatives on and off Capitol Hill were hard at work preparing for a bruising nomination fight between a popular president and a minority party looking for a unifying issue.

In announcing Souter’s retirement Friday, Obama laid out a set of criteria that he will use to choose his nominee, placing particular emphasis on the nominee’s need to be able to “empathize” with citizens.

“I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity. I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives — whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation,” Obama said.

Senate GOP leaders tread carefully in issuing their initial responses to Souter’s decision and the idea of a forthcoming Supreme Court selection. Yet in nearly every statement, Republican leaders sent the message that they expected Obama to steer clear of a liberal-leaning jurist.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman and a Judiciary Committee member, said: “In his replacement, it is my hope that President Obama will select someone who decides cases based on the law, rather than their own personal politics, feelings and preferences. For it is the law, and not his or her heart or political ideology, that should guide a judge’s decision-making process.”

Behind the scenes, however, GOP leaders were hard at work preparing for what they see as an inevitable fight. Republicans said Friday that leadership staff was already assembling a core group of aides on the Judiciary Committee to put together a process to vet Obama’s nominee and communicate the Republicans’ concerns.

Staff is “already engaged with leadership and at their work stations, to say the least,” one senior GOP aide said.

Although the recent defection to the Democratic Party by Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) — who was the ranking member on Judiciary — has shifted much of the initial planning onto leadership, this aide said the situation is not as dire as it might have been.

According to key Republicans, as part of the deal that Specter cut with GOP leaders in 2004 to get the Judiciary chairmanship, a number conservative-minded attorneys and staffers were brought on board to help vet, and ultimately move, former President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees. Much of that staff has stayed on board, Republicans said, providing Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — and potentially Specter’s replacement in the ranking member job — with significant support.

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