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Obama to GOP: Constitution 'Clear' on Scalia Replacement

President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference following a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the Sunnylands estate in California. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama on Tuesday pressed Senate Republicans to hold hearings and vote on his eventual Supreme Court nominee, saying the Constitution requires it.  

Obama offered few clues about the kind of individual he is seeking to replace the late Antonin Scalia, the 79-year-old conservative justice who was found dead Saturday. He did, however, say no candidate’s stance on any single issue would sway his decision and vowed to nominate a “very qualified” individual. He replied "no" — with a wide smile — when asked by a reporter if his calls for the Senate to conduct a confirmation process means he will send seek out a moderate nominee. Obama’s comments came during a news conference in California at an economic conference with Asian leaders.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., backed by a growing list of his GOP mates, said the next president should select Scalia’s replacement. They claim the presidential and congressional elections in November will allow the American people to decide in which political direction they want the court to lean.  

That’s because Obama’s nominee would likely lean left, putting a liberal in the seat once occupied by the ultra-conservative Scalia. Such a scenario would put five liberal justices on the nine-member court — along with Ronald Reagan appointee Justice Anthony Kennedy sometimes votes with the left-leaning bloc.  

Obama tried to pressure Republicans by using something to which they so often point: the U.S. Constitution. He called it “clear” that it mandates he should send the Senate a nominee and the chamber should start considering it through “regular order.”  

That means holding confirmation hearings in the Judiciary Committee and, if the the panel approves the nominee, a floor vote.  

“There is no unwritten law that it can only happen in off years,” Obama said, meaning non-election presidential years. And he criticized those who call themselves “strict interpreters” of the Constitution but now claim the nomination process should wait a full year. Those lawmakers, he claimed, “are suddenly reading into it provisions that are not there.”  

He pointed out that Justice Kennedy was appointed during Reagan’s final year, with Democrats pushing his nomination across the finish line with no objections. “They did the right thing,” Obama said of Democratic senators back then. “They confirmed him.”  

But he also sidestepped a question about his joining a filibuster attempt of as a senator of Justice Samuel Alito’s nomination in 2006.  

The president cast the situation as a test of whether the U.S. political system can still perform its most important tasks.  

“This is the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land,” he said. “The one court where we would expect elected officials to rise above day-to-day politics.”  

GOP lawmakers, however, see it differently.  

About two dozen Republican senators have joined McConnell is saying that the next president should choose Scalia's replacement, though some Tuesday suggested that a nominee might receive a hearing.  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, D-Wis., told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he supports Senate Republicans’ plans to block an Obama nominee: "We are knee deep into a presidential election and I think the precedent for not filling a Supreme Court vacancy in such a time is justified."  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT.

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