WASHINGTON — The death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia throws the court's future into question and sets up a tense debate among Senate leaders about how to replace him.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the vacancy on the court should not be filled until there is a new president — 11 months from now.
"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice," McConnell said in a statement. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."
President Barack Obama said from California that he plans to "fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to nominate a successor in due time." He said he would do so in "plenty of time for Congress to fulfill its responsibilities and give the nominee a fair hearing."
Since taking office, Obama has nominated two justices to the Supreme Court.
"The president can and should send the Senate a nominee right away," said the Democratic leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. "With so many important issues pending before the Supreme Court, the Senate has a responsibility to fill vacancies as soon as possible.
"It would be unprecedented in recent history for the Supreme Court to go a year with a vacant seat. Failing to fill this vacancy would be a shameful abdication of one of the Senate's most essential constitutional responsibilities," Reid said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa did not immediately issue a statement on Scalia's death. The committee's ranking Democratic member, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, also said the president should nominate, and the Senate should confirm, a justice quickly.
"The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons," Leahy said.
Since the Ford administration, the average number of days from nomination to final Senate vote is 67, according to the Congressional Research Service. Scalia's death leaves the court evenly split, with four justices nominated by Republican presidents and four by Democrats.
Scalia was nominated by President Ronald Reagan on June 24, 1986, and confirmed that September by a vote of 98-0.
Scalia's death not only affects the court's balance for the rest of the Supreme Court's current term, but also sets up a likely confrontation between the president and the Republican-controlled Senate. Obama and many Democrats are likely to see the court's vacancy as an opportunity to install a more liberal justice. Republicans are likely to resist, with an eye toward the possibility that a Republican victory in the presidential election in November would enable the new president to make a conservative appointment.
In reacting to the news of Scalia's death, Chief Justice John Roberts called him "an extraordinary individual and jurist."
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the McClatchy Washington Bureau.