President Donald Trump plans to announce his nominee for the Supreme Court today, moving to fill a seat held vacant for nearly a year by Senate Republicans and touching off what is expected to be a furious ideological showdown early in his administration.
Trump scheduled a prime-time televised announcement from the White House for 8 p.m. to present his choice to a national audience, his first foray into the judicial wars that have consumed Washington for generations. At least some Senate Democrats were already preparing to block anyone he picks.
The leading finalists were believed to be two federal appeals court judges with strong conservative records: Neil M. Gorsuch of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Thomas M. Hardiman of the 3rd Circuit in Pittsburgh, according to Republicans close to the process. A third appeals court judge, William H. Pryor Jr. of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, has also been reported to be in the running.
Any Supreme Court nomination would raise partisan tensions, but this one is coming when Washington is already on edge over the fast-paced, sharp-edged beginning of Trump's presidency. In particular, the capital is polarized over Trump's executive order temporarily shutting the nation's borders to refugees worldwide and to any visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The fight for this particular seat, vacated with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last February, was already destined to generate acrimony because Republicans blocked President Barack Obama from filling it for 11 months. Democrats remain bitter that Republicans would not even hold a hearing for Obama's nominee on the argument that it was too close to the election.
Trump told a group of small-business owners at the White House on Monday that his nominee would be "a person who is unbelievably highly respected, and I think you will be very impressed with this person."
He had originally planned to make the announcement Thursday, but moved it up two days after the weekend furor over his immigration order. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said Trump had moved it up not to change the subject but because "he was ready to go."
In making the announcement in prime time, Trump is following the example of former President George W. Bush, who presented his first Supreme Court nominee, John G. Roberts Jr., at a nighttime ceremony. Roberts was originally nominated for an associate justice seat and was later elevated to chief justice after the death of William H. Rehnquist.
Both sides are already gearing up for a fight. Some Senate Democrats, still angry that Republicans prevented Obama from filling the seat, said they might filibuster Trump's nominee, which would be historically unusual but not unprecedented.
Breaking a filibuster would require Republicans, who hold 52 Senate seats, to win 60 votes. Liberal activists, who assume that Trump's nominee will oppose legal abortion and gay rights and take other conservative positions, have been pressuring Democrats to filibuster rather than allow confirmation on a simple majority.
"This is a stolen seat," Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told Politico. "This is the first time a Senate majority has stolen a seat. We will use every lever in our power to stop this."
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said, "We're not looking for payback." But he added that the last four justices confirmed by the Senate had backing from both parties. "Will the president nominate someone who's mainstream enough to get bipartisan support?" he asked.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader — who prevented the Senate from considering Obama's nomination of Merrick B. Garland, a federal appeals court judge — said lawmakers should now grant Trump's nominee an up-or-down vote.
"The Senate should respect the result of the election and treat this newly elected president's nominee in the same way the nominees of other newly elected presidents have been treated," he said on the floor.
The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group, has said it will spend $10 million and deploy 60 surrogates to pressure Senate Democrats from states that Trump won to vote to confirm the nominee. It is targeting nine Democratic senators from states carried by Trump, like North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia.
Leonard Leo Jr., a lawyer who has been advising Trump's White House on the selection, said he was confident that the nominee would follow the same philosophy as Scalia, who argued for interpreting the Constitution according to its text and original meaning.
"At the core of Justice Scalia's legacy is the idea that the Constitution ultimately rests power in the people, and that's been a centerpiece of President Trump's agenda," Leo said. He said he anticipated "a nominee who shares and embraces that understanding."