WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said Wednesday that he will not insist that his Supreme Court nominee pass any "litmus tests" over supporting abortion rights, but made clear he will choose a candidate who will consider personal privacy and women's rights when ruling on cases.
"That's going to be something that's very important to me," Obama said in response to a question about a woman's right to choose.
"I think part of what our constitutional values promote is the notion that individuals have protection in their privacy, and their bodily integrity, and women are not exempt from that," Obama said.
The president noted that the debate over abortion rights has long divided the country, and he chose a response that did not box him in. At the same time, Obama underscored his belief in a right to privacy.
The president is in the midst of considering a nominee to succeed the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, who will leave the high court this summer.
Among the people Obama is considering for the court are federal appeals court judges Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas, former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow.
"I will say the same thing that every president has said since this issue came up, which is, I don't have litmus tests around any of these issues," Obama told reporters when asked if he could nominate someone who did not support a woman's right to choose. "But I will say that I want somebody who will be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights. And that includes women's rights."
Obama made his remarks at the start of a consultative session at the White House with senators who help shape the tone and course of the Senate confirmation process. Seated with him were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel.
Vice President Joe Biden, a former senator and veteran of many Supreme Court confirmation battles, joined Obama as well.
Obama said he plans to nominate someone by the end of May at the latest, but hopefully sooner - as is widely expected. The president said he hopes the Senate will confirm the nominee in time for the new justice to hire a staff and be ready for work when the court begins a new session in early October.
After the meeting broke, Leahy declared confidently: "There will be a new justice on the Supreme Court when the court comes back in session."
Reid said that no names of potential nominees were discussed.
The Senate Democratic leader said he told Obama the nominee need not already be a judge, but rather "someone who's an academic, someone who's held public office, someone who's an outstanding lawyer. And the president said he'll take that into consideration."
Reid and Leahy spoke to reporters briefly on the White House driveway after the meeting; the Republicans, McConnell and Sessions, did not.
Leahy was sharply critical of the current Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a nominee of former President George W. Bush.
"We have right now a very, very activist, conservative activist, Supreme Court," Leahy said, citing recent decisions. "I think this does not reflect the American people but reflects more of a partisan agenda. I would hope that the president's nominee can get us back away from that."
Obama sought to assure the senators of both parties that he would consider their ideas before making a decision.
He praised them for working together on a "smooth, civil, thoughtful nomination process and confirmation process" last year for Sonia Sotomayor, who replaced Justice David Souter on the court.
"My hope is, is that we can do the exact same thing this time," Obama said.
Reid later added: "The Senate's reputation's on the line here. Everyone recognizes how important this is."
Obama has begun conversations with potential nominees, but not formal interviews, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the privacy of Obama's deliberations.
Many Republican senators are wary that Obama will seek out a judicial activist who will bring a liberal agenda to the bench, and the White House already is expecting what chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called a "huge, huge battle" from Republicans over whomever Obama picks.
With 59 usually reliable votes from Democrats and independents in the Senate, Obama is in a strong position to pick the person he wants. He would need 60 votes to head off a filibuster. Obama aides are confident that they can get that support and that Republicans won't go that route anyway.