Search Is On for Supreme Court Justice

Posted May 4, 2009 at 6:46pm

The Obama administration revved up its search for a new Supreme Court justice on Monday, reaching out to Senators and warning that lawmakers will need to make room in their crowded summer schedules to handle the nomination.

But Republicans were already preparing for what they hope will be a unifying fight with the new administration over an issue that has long galvanized the GOP base. As a side benefit, they would also like to force the sizable number of moderate Senate Democrats into a politically difficult corner.

President Barack Obama wants to replace Associate Justice David Souter by Oct. 1, and the White House urged the Senate to complete as much of the confirmation process as possible before the August recess.

“Obviously this process has to be a decent ways down the field,— White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “I guess what I’m saying is this isn’t going to all happen in September.—

With health care reform, the annual appropriations bills and other key legislative issues already in the pipeline, Gibbs acknowledged that the prospect of a drawn-out nomination fight concerns the administration.

“We should begin to make progress, starting here and then eventually down the street, to ensure that we’re not all caught having to do several things in September,— Gibbs said. But Gibbs said he did not have a specific timeline for when Obama might announce his nominee.

Obama on Monday reached out to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and possibly others.

Leahy said Obama offered a sense of when a nominee might be forthcoming, but he declined to elaborate.

According to Specter, Obama called him at noon Monday to formally “begin the consultation process on a new Supreme Court nominee. He asked for recommendations and I told him I would think it over and get back to him.—

Hatch said Obama pledged to consult him on potential nominees. Though he said the president did not share his timeline for naming someone, Hatch predicted it would be soon.

“I’d be surprised if it went beyond this week,— he said.

Speaking Monday evening on MSNBC’s “Hardball,— Hatch said Obama assured him that he would look to tap a nominee with broad political appeal. But Hatch said he remains concerned that Obama’s “empathy— standard is code for judges who will use the bench to make law.

“He wants people who are not out of the mainstream, he wants people who are not radical, he wants people who aren’t extreme … but the president has said he’d pick people who’d use their own political feelings— in rulings, Hatch said. “When they start making laws, I think that’s when they have a hard time with me.—

Obama is expected to hold meetings with other lawmakers this week. The administration is likely to continue discussions with outside interest groups and scholars that began almost immediately following Obama’s election.

These discussions took on more urgency earlier this year when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Democratic aides noted that with the Senate scheduled to break for the entire month of August and weeklong recesses set for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, the number of working days before October is quickly shrinking.

Although Democrats stressed that it is too early to know what kind of schedule Leahy will set, the committee could be forced to hold hearings during the August recess.

Gibbs said Monday that beyond finding a nominee who makes decisions based on the rule of law and precedent, Obama is looking for someone who “understands that decisions have to be made, using common sense and understanding people’s everyday lives.—

Gibbs suggested that Obama will consider the race and gender of potential appointments. “The president described that there should be a diversity of experience,— he said. “I’m sure he will look at candidates with a diversity in background.—

Conservatives and Senate Republicans are already casting wording such as “empathy— as code for liberal, activist judges. They hope to frame the debate over the nominee even before Obama’s selection is announced.

According to GOP leadership aides, Republicans will look to put pressure on a number of veteran moderates such as Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), as well as newer Members.

Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.), Jim Webb (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and even Sherrod Brown (Ohio) could find themselves in the sights of conservatives in a way they have not yet experienced.

One leadership source said that the hope among Republicans is to force voters to ask, “Are they truly moderate, or was it just rhetoric during the lean years— when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress? He added that Republicans will be “testing the new guys.—