President Donald Trump, poised to restore the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, met with key senators on Tuesday and promised to unveil his nominee next week, with three U.S. appeals court judges among those under close consideration.
Trump met at the White House with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and the top Republican and Democrat on the Judiciary Committee to discuss filling the court's lingering vacancy caused by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia more than 11 months ago.
The lifetime appointment as a Supreme Court justice requires Senate confirmation.
Leonard Leo, a conservative lawyer advising Trump, said the president "has definitely narrowed his focus" and is "looking very seriously" at a short list of candidates.
Among the frontrunners are three conservative jurists: Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Thomas Hardiman, who serves on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and William Pryor, a judge on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Judges Gorsuch and Hardiman and Pryor have received a lot of attention from the president. He knows who they are. He is familiar with their records. He's clearly impressed with their backgrounds," Leo said.
All three were appointed to the bench by Republican former President George W. Bush.
"I'll be making my decision this week. We'll be announcing next week. We have outstanding candidates, and we will pick a truly great Supreme Court justice," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.
The leading candidates all have strong conservative credentials.
Gorsuch joined a ruling in 2013 saying that owners of private companies can object on religious grounds to a provision of the Obamacare health insurance law requiring employers to provide insurance covering birth control for women.
Hardiman wrote an opinion in 2013 embracing a broad interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's right to bear arms.
Pryor has been an outspoken critic of the court's 1973 landmark ruling that legalized abortion.
Leo said all three are "very much in the mold of Justice Scalia," who was among the most conservative members of the court.
After the meeting with Trump, Schumer said he reiterated that the president "should pick a mainstream nominee who could earn bipartisan support" and that Democrats would fight any nominee they deem outside the mainstream.
"I anticipate what we're going to get from the president is a highly qualified, well-credentialed conservative jurist," McConnell told reporters.
Trump can name Scalia's replacement because the Republican-led U.S. Senate, in an action with little precedent in U.S. history, last year refused to consider Democratic President Barack Obama's nominee, appeals court judge Merrick Garland.
Obama, who handed over power to Trump last Friday, nominated Garland on March 16, but Republican senators led by McConnell denied Garland the customary confirmation hearings and vote.
Since Scalia's death, the court has been deadlocked ideologically with four conservative justices and four liberals. A conservative replacement for Scalia would reinstate the court's narrow conservative majority in place for decades.
Trump's fellow Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the Senate. Democrats, irate over Garland's rebuff, potentially could try to block the nomination using procedural hurdles.
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech and David Shephardson; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Will Dunham)