President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge widely viewed as a centrist, to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant last month by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
But a political storm was building at the U.S. Capitol, where the Republican-controlled Senate has insisted it will not meet with or hold a vote on Obama’s nominee to the high court.
Senate Republicans say Obama, who is in his final year in office, should allow the next president to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.
Obama, who will remain in office until late January 2017, says it is his constitutional responsibility to choose a Supreme Court nominee promptly, and that the Senate is obligated to hold confirmation hearings on his pick.
The showdown over the court vacancy is especially contentious because a new justice could tip the ideological balance of the court in either a liberal or conservative direction. Scalia's death left the court with eight justices.
Obama said Garland, 63, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, will visit the Capitol on Thursday to begin one-on-one meetings with senators. “I simply ask Republicans in the Senate to give him a fair hearing," Obama said.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Wednesday that Obama should defer and “give the people a voice in filling this vacancy.”
Matter of 'principle'
The dispute is over “a principle and not a person,” McConnell said. “It seems clear that President Obama made this nomination not, not with the intent of seeing this nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize it for purposes of the election.”
Republicans are hoping their presidential nominee will win the November election and then name a jurist who will restore the court's conservative-leaning majority.
Undeterred, Democrats are keeping up the pressure on Republicans.
“I do hope they will do their constitutional duty and give President Obama’s nominee a meeting, a hearing and a vote,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Visiting Fellow Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution, a Washington research and policy group, said the election season could be "more of a consideration than Garland's impressive credentials."
But Wheeler said, "Some Republicans might say, all things considered, are we better off taking a moderate Obama nominee than what could well be a [Democratic front-runner] Hillary Clinton nominee — assuming ... she will defeat [Republican front-runner Donald] Trump — who could be to the left of Garland?”
Analyst Michelle Jawando of the Center for American Progress, a progressive public policy research and advocacy group in Washington, said it is vital that the high court remain above politics.
“This is the type of nominee we shouldn't leave to the petty politics of this moment. The Supreme Court is one of these institutions that we all should think about and recognize the importance of in our society,” she said.
'A spirit of decency'
“I selected a nominee who is widely recognized not only as one of America's sharpest legal minds, but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, evenhandedness and excellence," Obama said during his announcement in the White House Rose Garden.
The president touted Garland as someone who has “won overwhelming bipartisan praise” as a judge and has a record of compassion and building "consensus as a thoughtful, fair-minded judge who follows the law."
Legal analysts said Garland would not excite Obama’s progressive backers but was a solid strategic choice given the partisan divides in Washington.
“When you are dealing with that kind of climate, it’s really important to have someone who is a consensus nominee,” said Michele Jawando of the Center for American Progress. “He is not a surprise to those in the legal profession.”
In emotional remarks, Garland called the nomination “the greatest honor of my life,” besides his marriage to his wife, Lynn, and the births of their daughters, Jessie and Becky.
"For me, there could be no higher public service than serving as a member of the United States Supreme Court," Garland said. "Fidelity to the Constitution and the law has been the cornerstone of my professional life and is the hallmark of the kind of judge I've tried to be for the past 18 years."
VOA Capitol Hill correspondent Michael Bowman contributed to this report.
WATCH: Judge Merrick Garland is nominated to fill Supreme Court vacancy