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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he will announce his U.S. Supreme Court nominee by the end of May and insisted his pick must back women's rights but would not have to pass a "litmus test" on the abortion issue.
Obama spoke as he consulted with lawmakers on his effort to fill a vacancy on the nation's highest court while hoping to avoid a politically divisive fight that could distract from his legislative agenda in a congressional election year.
He has begun informal talks with potential nominees, signaling an intent to start narrowing his choices for a replacement for retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, considered the court's leading liberal. His pick will be subject to U.S. Senate confirmation.
"I am confident that we can come up with a nominee who will gain the confidence of the Senate and the confidence of the country," Obama told reporters as he sat down with leading Democratic and Republican senators.
Touching on a hot-button social issue, Obama, asked whether he would nominate someone who did not support a woman's right to have an abortion, 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."
Obama added, "I don't have litmus tests around any of these issues. 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, including women's rights. That is something that is going to be very important to me."
Obama is considering a list of about 10 candidates, including lower-court judges -- the bastion from which recent presidents have made their selections -- as well as less-traditional prospects from the world of politics.
The choice of a politician likely would draw fire from Republican lawmakers and threaten to raise further obstacles to his push for legislation on financial regulatory reform and climate change.
Obama's list of potential nominees includes: Elena Kagan, the U.S. solicitor general; Diane Wood, a U.S. appeals court judge in Chicago; Merrick Garland, a U.S. appeals court judge in Washington, D.C.; Sidney Thomas, a U.S. appeals court judge in San Francisco; and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
A more recent addition to the list is Judge Ann Claire Williams, who serves on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Obama's pick is not likely to change the ideological balance of the court, which has five conservatives and four liberals.
Obama said he expected to send his nomination to the Senate by the end of May. "We are certainly going to meet that deadline and we hope we can accelerate it a little bit so we have some additional time," he said.
His meeting with senior senators from both parties seemed to show his determination to prevent the kind of bipartisan rancor that has flared over issues like healthcare reform from dominating the Supreme Court confirmation process.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both said no specific nominees were discussed in the meeting.
"I would hope that we ignore the groups on the far right or the far left and think of the American people," Leahy told reporters about the kind of nominee he would like Obama to choose.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Will Dunham