WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, treading carefully on the explosive issue of abortion and the Supreme Court, said Wednesday he will choose a nominee who pays heed to women's rights and privacy when interpreting the Constitution.
"That's very important to me," Obama said. Yet he insisted he will not make any potential nominee pass a "litmus test" on abortion rights.
Obama consulted Senate leaders from both parties at the White House as he moved toward choosing a replacement for Justice John Paul Stevens, who turned 90 on Tuesday and is retiring.
The White House says Obama is considering about 10 people and has begun conversations with candidates. A nominee is expected within the next few weeks.
Noting that the abortion debate has long divided the country, Obama underscored his belief in a right to privacy while attempting not to box himself in.
The Supreme Court declared in 1973 through its Roe v. Wade decision that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion, and close questioning on the issue has been a feature of Senate confirmation hearings since then. Federal courts have battled with the ramifications since the landmark decision, although the core ruling has gone untouched.
When asked if he could nominate someone who did not support a woman's right to choose, Obama said: "I am somebody who believes that women should have the ability to make often very difficult decisions about their own bodies and issues of reproduction."
As for his nominee, Obama said he would repeat the stand of other presidents by not judging candidates with a single-issue test.
"But I will say that I want somebody who is going to be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights, and that includes women's rights," Obama said. "And that's going to be something that's very important to me, because I think part of what our core constitutional values promote is the notion that individuals are protected in their privacy and their bodily integrity. And women are not exempt from that."
Stevens is the leader of the liberals on the court, and the person Obama nominates is not expected to change the ideological balance among the justices. Still, Republicans can be expected to press the nominee on how future decision might be affected by his or her views on abortion and other contentious issues.
Among those under consideration are federal appeals court judges Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas, former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow.
Obama praised senators of both parties for working together on a "smooth, civil, thoughtful nomination process and confirmation process" last year for Sonia Sotomayor, who replaced David Souter on the court.
"My hope is, is that we can do the exact same thing this time," he said.
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 is expecting what chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calls a "huge, huge battle."
Still, 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, and White House aides are confident they can get the support they need.
Obama made his remarks at the start of a session with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and 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 the group as well.
The president said he plans to nominate someone by the end of May at the latest, but hopefully sooner. He wants a Senate vote in time for the new justice to hire a staff and be ready for work when the court begins its session in early October.
"There will be a new justice on the Supreme Court when the court comes back in session," Leahy declared confidently after the Oval Office meeting with Obama.
Reid said that no names of potential nominees were discussed in the meeting.
The Senate Democratic leader said he told Obama the nominee need not already be a judge, but possibly "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."
Associated Press writer Jesse J. Holland contributed to this story.