President Barack Obama, eager to have his Supreme Court nominee seated by early October, has begun calling senators who will play key roles in the confirmation process.
While it is unclear when Obama will name a nominee, aides said he wants the process to move rapidly enough so that the Senate can confirm the person shortly after Congress returns from its August recess, if not sooner.
"We're on a fairly tight timeline to probably get something done before Congress gets out of town in August," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. He amended his remarks, saying that by late July, "obviously this process has to be a decent ways down the field."
Gibbs said Obama spoke by phone Monday with Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to discuss the vacancy created by Justice David Souter's announced retirement. Both senators are on the Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings before the full Senate votes on whether to confirm Obama's eventual choice.
Hatch is a Republican and influential in his party on judicial nominations. Specter on Wednesday switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party.
Hatch said Obama assured him "he will not pick a radical or extremist."
The president did not provide names of those under consideration, but told Hatch he would get back to him.
The Utah Republican said there could be a major Senate fight if Obama "nominates someone contrary to what he told me." But Hatch said he takes the president at his word.
The senator said he expects the nominee will favor abortion rights. Asked about Obama's comments that a nominee would have "empathy and understanding," the senator called empathy "a buzzword for judicial activists" and suggested that the president call him back with a list of possible nominees for advice on winning confirmation. "I could save him a lot of pain," Hatch said.
A White House statement provided few details of the calls. It said Obama "vowed to consult regularly with senators in both parties to ensure an orderly confirmation process" that will seat the new justice by October.
Many liberal groups are urging Obama to name a woman and/or Hispanic to the high court. Gibbs declined to make such a promise.
"I am sure he will look at candidates for diversity in background," Gibbs said. But he said Obama mainly is looking for "somebody with a record of excellence, somebody with a record of integrity, somebody who understands the rule of law, and somebody who understands how being a judge affects Americans' everyday lives."
Gibbs hinted that Obama might prefer a relatively young person who might spend decades on the Supreme Court, where justices have lifetime appointments. Liberals note that former President George W. Bush's two conservative appointees — Samuel Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John Roberts — are in their 50s, and could influence American society and jurisprudence for many years.
"I think you always assume, rightly so, that whomever you choose is going to have a significant impact on the court for quite some time," Gibbs said.
He said that before Obama was inaugurated, his transition team "began identifying a long time ago candidates for what we assumed might be an eventual pick for the Supreme Court."