WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will announce his nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court very soon, White House officials said Friday, as court watchers said Solicitor General Elena Kagan is most likely to be the pick.
Although there is no guarantee she is the nominee, Kagan could be expected to pass fairly smoothly through the confirmation process, experts say.
Administration officials are eager to avoid a bitter battle over the court pick ahead of congressional elections in November, where Obama’s fellow Democrats will be fighting to keep their majorities in Congress.
Considered one of the more moderate choices on Obama’s short list of potential court nominees, Kagan has been through one Senate confirmation already — she was confirmed last year for her current position.
Obama’s announcement of his selection to replace retiring liberal Justice John Paul Stevens could come “at any moment,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday. Most observers expect an announcement Monday or Tuesday.
Administration officials have not said who Obama’s nominee for the lifetime appointment to the nine-member Court will be, but they have confirmed the names of several people on Obama’s short list, including Kagan.
“I have not been told that he’s made a decision,” Gibbs told a news conference. “I have not been told that the interviews have stopped.”
Obama has interviewed at least four people for the vacancy, including two women — Kagan, and federal appeals court Judge Diane Wood, one of the most liberal of the potential nominees. She would face the toughest confirmation fight but is also considered a favorite.
Obama has also interviewed Merrick Garland, a moderate federal appeals court judge in Washington thought to be most favored by Republicans among those on Obama’s list; and Sidney Thomas, a federal appeals court judge in San Francisco with a more liberal record than some potential nominees.
Legal experts warned that rumors are no guarantee that Obama would pick Kagan.
A senior Senate aide noted that Obama surprised many observers last year when he nominated his first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor.
A Gallup poll released Friday said 42 percent of Americans would prefer a new Supreme Court justice who makes the court more conservative, while 27 percent would prefer one who would make the Court more liberal.
Gallup said it found a similar result last May before Obama nominated Sotomayor.
In March 2009, Kagan was confirmed as U.S. solicitor general by a divided Senate, 61-31. All the “no” votes were cast by Republicans, including Arlen Specter, who has since switched parties to become a Democrat.
“If senators opposed Kagan for solicitor general, saying she wasn’t qualified for that job, they’re going to have a tough time saying she’s qualified for the highest court in the land,” a senior Republican aide said.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch voted to confirm Kagan for solicitor general, but said he would reserve judgment on her possible Supreme Court nomination.
Once Obama announces a nominee, that person will hold a series of private visits with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who will hold the confirmation hearing, likely in July.
The Democratic aim is to have Obama’s pick confirmed before lawmakers leave for their August recess.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Roberta Rampton, editing by Todd Eastham