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Politics Amid Praise As Lawmakers React to Scalia's Death

Scalia remembered on Hill as brilliant, formidable.  (Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)

Lawmakers reacted with shock and sorrow to the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday, but condolences quickly gave way to politics as leaders debated how quickly to replace the conservative stalwart.  

With President Barack Obama pledging to submit a nomination soon, Republicans pushed back on that plan.  

"The next president must nominate a justice who will continue Justice Scalia's unwavering belief in the founding principles that we hold dear," said presidential hopeful and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose chamber holds the power to confirm or block nominees, also sent a clear message that Obama shouldn't bother trying to nominate a replacement.  

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.”  

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., also suggested in a Tweet that the next president must nominate Scalia's replacement. That would be welcome news to Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, who tweeted that the Senate must not allow Obama to seat Scalia's replacement.  

Democrats, however, argued that the Senate should confirm the nominee quickly.  

"With so many important issues pending before the Supreme Court, the Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. "It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat. Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential constitutional responsibilities."  

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said the Republicans calling for a delay were doing a "dishonor to our Constitution."  

"The Senate has a constitutional responsibility here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons," she said in a statement released on Twitter. She reiterated her views at a campaign event.  

Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders also spoke out on the campaign trial for the need to move quickly. "I very much hope that President Obama will bring forth a strong nominee" whom the Senate will confirm.  

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pointed out that it is only February and thus "without delay" Obama should nominate a replacement and the Senate should confirm the next justice.  

"The Supreme Court of the United States is too important  to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons," he said.  

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said it has been standard practice not to choose a Supreme Court justice in a presidential election year.  

"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,” Grassley said.  

Many other lawmakers, though were not yet ready to talk politics about Scalia, 79, who died in his sleep during a trip to Texas.  

"Let's save the political speculating for another day and take time to remember Scalia, who was a true defender of the Constitution," Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., said.  

That's what the majority of statements and Tweets lawmakers sent out did. Flags around the Capitol complex will fly at half-staff to honor Scalia, according to the Senate sergeant-at-arms.  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan said in a statement that he learned a lot from Scalia, a "brilliant jurist" whose "writings with their plain language and constitutional mornings -- will guide generations to come." He noted their shared religion of Catholicism, saying Scalia was fond of quoting St. Paul's advice to "think soberly."  

"That Justice Scalia did, as always, and our republic is better for it," Ryan said.  

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, tweeted, "Justice Scalia's legacy is clear - he renewed our nation's belief in the rule of law and reinvigorated how we view the Constitution."  Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said Scalia "led a much-needed revolution in the law, based on the enduring principle that the role of a judge is to say what the law is, not what the law should be." Scalia's opinions, he  added, were "filled with unmatched wit" and "will continue to shape our nation for decades to come." House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called "ardent patriot" and reflected on his wisdom and wit. "Our nation was lucky to have had a man of such character and intellectual depth on our highest court these past three decades. Justice Scalia is irreplaceable and we are in debt to his service,” he said in a statement.  

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, recalled first meeting Scalia when his law school hosted him for an event. "He was funny/engaging and won over most students," he tweeted. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said “Justice Scalia's death is a great loss to our country. He was a skilled jurist and a delightful man. In his opinions, he consistently did his best to keep our country true to its constitutional founding principles.”  

Even Democrats had some nice things to say about Scalia, who was nominated by a Republican, President Ronald Reagan.  

"While I disagreed with him on so many issues, Justice Scalia was a brilliant man with a probing mind," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "He was a great son of Queens with a genuine joy for life."  

Scalia made history in 1986 as the first Italian American named to the Supreme Court, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, recalling his "pride in his heritage" and "dedication to his beautiful family."  

Pelosi commended Scalia's "deep patriotism and distinction," noting, "He leaves behind a formidable record of jurisprudence, and a fierce articulation of his understanding of the Constitution."  

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., noted his surprise at Scalia's sudden passing.

“I am stunned since Justice Scalia seemed to be in the prime of his life," Nelson said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. And I take very seriously our constitutional responsibility to fill this vacancy.”

Bridget Bowman and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.  Contact McPherson at lindseymcpherson@rollcall.com or follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.