RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIF. — President Obama on Tuesday vowed to nominate a Supreme Court associate justice who is "indisputably qualified for the seat," and he scoffed at Republican suggestions that the process should be halted until after the November presidential election and a new administration takes office.
"There’s no unwritten law that says it can only be done in off years," Obama said during a news conference here after the conclusion of a two-day summit with Southeast Asian leaders. "That’s not in the constitutional text. I’m amused when I hear people claim to be strict interpreters of the Constitution suddenly reading into it a whole series of provisions that are not there."
Obama said he expected the Senate to vote on his eventual nomination and criticized the "venom and rancor in Washington" that have stalled his previous judicial nominations for lower courts
"Part of the problem we have here is we've almost gotten accustomed to how obstructionist the Senate has become when it comes to nominations," Obama said. "I’ve got 14 nominations pending that were unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee."
Obama did not offer a timeline for a nomination and did not reveal who he might select, other than to say the person would be someone "any fair-minded person, even someone who might disagree with my politics, would say would serve with honor and integrity on the court." He ruled out making an appointment during congressional recess, which would not require a confirmation vote, saying he expected the process to go through regular order.
The president also weighed in on the 2016 campaign but declined to expound on differences between Democratic presidential candidates, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Obama said he would let the process play out in the primaries.
On the Republican side, however, the president slammed anti-Muslim rhetoric from GOP front-runner Donald Trump and other candidates. He added, "I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president. ... Being president is a serious job."
Obama, having just finished two days of meetings with the foreign leaders, said presidents must know the names of foreign leaders and know something about their countries' histories and "not just play to the crowd back home."
"During primaries people vent and express themselves," he said. "It seems like entertainment and often it's reported like it’s entertainment. But as you get closer, reality has a way of intruding."
On the Supreme Court nomination fight, Obama challenged Congress to "rise above it."
"I understand the stakes," he said. "This court is divided. This would be the deciding vote, and there will be a lot of Republican senators under a lot of pressure from special interests and various constituencies and their voters not to let any nominee go through no matter who I nominate. But that's not how the court system is supposed to work."
Obama answered questions from reporters after concluding meetings with the Southeast Asian leaders here Tuesday in warm climes and cloudless skies, telling his counterparts that he was happy to be away from the cold and snow in Washington. But Obama, who has sought to use the summit at the lush Sunnylands retreat to build deeper U.S. ties to the region, has had less success escaping the roiling political debate back home over the future of the Supreme Court vacancy created by the unexpected death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday.
White House aides have been peppered by questions from U.S. reporters covering the summit over when Obama will nominate a replacement, and the president himself felt compelled to make a brief statement about Scalia at a hastily called news conference hours after the justice's death.
Obama has vowed to make a nomination even though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that the process should be delayed until after the November presidential election and that Obama's successor should make the nomination. But Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said he has not ruled out committee hearings on a potential nominee.
While the U.S. political debate over the Supreme Court and the 2016 campaign threatened to overshadow the summit, White House aides said a key objective was making an impression on media markets in the 10 Southeast Asian nations. Obama was scheduled to conduct an interview with Channel News Asia, an English-language television network based in Singapore.
The White House also announced that the president would make his first visit to Vietnam in May, on a trip during which he also will attend the Group of Seven summit in Japan.