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Obama: 'The Constitution Is Pretty Clear' About A Supreme Court Vacancy


President Obama says the Constitution is pretty clear about what's supposed to happen now that there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court. He reiterated his plan to nominate a successor for Justice Antonin Scalia who died over the weekend, and he challenged Senate Republicans to give that nominee a hearing and a timely up or down vote. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And Scott, the president took questions from reporters at the end of a summit meeting with Southeast Asian leaders in California. And do I have this right? He used the opportunity to criticize what he called obstruction by Senate Republicans?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: He did, Robert. He was responding, really, here to Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader in the Senate who has said that it should be up to the next occupant of the Oval Office to choose a successor for Antonin Scalia. The president described this as really an extension of other holdups that his nominees have faced. He's got 14 judicial nominees that were unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but who have not been able to get a vote in the full Senate. He called that a measure of the venom and rancor that is rampant in D.C. these days, and he said this would be a good time for the United States to rise above that.


BARACK OBAMA: This is the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. It's the one court where we would expect elected officials to rise above day-to-day politics. And this will be the opportunity for senators to do their job. Your job doesn't stop until you're voted out or until your term expires. I intend to do my job between now and January 20 of 2017. I expect them to do their job as well.

HORSLEY: Now, Obama said he understands the stakes here. Obviously Justice Scalia was a linchpin of the conservative majority on the court which is now divided four to four, but Obama said that kind of political consideration is not the way this system is supposed to work.

SIEGEL: Let's say he makes a nomination. Are Senate Republicans planning to just ignore it and run out the clock until the November election?

HORSLEY: You know, that's a good question. Senator McConnell seemed to suggest over the weekend that the whole confirmation process should just be put on ice until we have a new president in office. But today, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, left the door open just a crack to at least holding a hearing on an Obama nominee. Grassley was asked about that on a conference call with Iowa reporters and said, in effect, let's wait and see.


CHUCK GRASSLEY: Well, ask your question again when a nominee comes up 'cause I'm going to take this a step at a time.

HORSLEY: Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina also said today the GOP should be careful about rejecting Obama's nominee sight unseen. Tillis, who's also on the Judiciary Committee, warned that could put them at risk of being seen as obstructionist. So there is, at least, a possibility here that Obama's pick will get a Senate hearing.

SIEGEL: Scott, what is the president saying, if anything, about the kind of person he plans to nominate?

HORSLEY: He says he'll follow the pattern he did in choosing first Sonya Sotomayor and later Elena Kagan - this is, judicial nominees with impeccable legal credentials, strong integrity, someone even political opponents could look at and say this person would serve with honor on the Supreme Court.

SIEGEL: The president was asked at this news conference a number of times to handicap the 2016 presidential race. What did he say?

HORSLEY: Reporters are always trying to push Obama into that handicapping position. And as usual, he tried to steer clear of taking sides in the Democratic primary. He acknowledged that he knows Hillary Clinton better than Bernie Sanders, and she worked in his administration. And he probably agrees with her on more issues than he does with Sanders. Although, he said there may be issues where he is more on Sanders' side. But he had no such hesitation in weighing in on the GOP primary and, in particular, about his old birther nemesis Donald Trump.


OBAMA: I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president. And the reason is because I have a lot of faith in the American people, and I think they recognize that being president is a serious job.

HORSLEY: And the president said he - when he talks with foreign leaders, they're concerned by some of the rhetoric they're hearing in the GOP primary and not just from Donald Trump but also other Republican candidates who, for example, have expressed antagonism towards Muslims or immigrants or skepticism about climate change.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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