WASHINGTON (CNN) – Leading Democrats and Republicans parted ways on the issue of President Barack Obama's looming Supreme Court pick Sunday, setting the stage for a potentially divisive Senate confirmation fight.
Republicans charged that Obama's stated desire to pick someone with "empathy and understanding" masked an intention to pick a judicial activist who would try to pull the high court significantly to the left. Democrats dismissed the GOP charge, arguing that Obama - a former constitutional law professor - would tap a candidate committed to equal justice and not use a high court opening to pursue a partisan political agenda.
Obama is currently considering possible replacements for Justice David Souter, who announced his intention Friday to retire at the end the Supreme Court's current term this summer. Souter, 69, is generally considered to be a member of the court's more liberal bloc.
The vacancy gives Obama his first Supreme Court appointment, and the first since President George W. Bush's picks of Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005 and Justice Samuel Alito in 2006. And it appears likely to underscore the ideological chasm between the two parties on the question of judicial philosophy.
"The key thing and the place where I think we draw the line is, is this an individual who will follow the Constitution and the law, or is this an individual who believes in making the law?" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said on CNN's "State of the Union."
"If it's the latter, I think we should stand up and scream loud and hard," said Romney, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, worried on ABC's "This Week" that Obama had indicated "that politics, preferences, personal preferences and feelings might take the place of being impartial and deciding cases based upon the law, not upon politics."
Hatch led the Senate Judiciary Committee when former President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer to the high court. He pointed to Obama's comments at the White House Friday, when the president stated he will "seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook."
"I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes," Obama said.
Hatch argued that words such as "empathy" are "code words for an activist judge, who is going to ... be partisan on the bench."
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, also on "This Week," responded that Obama "doesn't need to use code words. He speaks very plainly and very directly."
Obama "understands the court probably better than certainly any president in my lifetime," Leahy said. "And I know some of the names he's thinking of. They are all going to be extremely good, good people."
Obama is rumored to be considering, among others, federal appeals court Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, argued on "Fox News Sunday" that Obama should have no litmus tests in choosing a nominee, particularly on the hot-button abortion issue.
"If people have actually taken positions, I think that that in and of itself prejudices them in the future," he said.
Granholm and Patrick ran for office as staunch defenders of abortion rights. Other potential choices have made public statements indicating a similar position. But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said it would be "hard to imagine someone, after 30 or 40 years of experience in the law, who hasn't taken a position on some issue."
"That's going to happen. ... We just need to make certain that person is using sound reasoning to reach that position and that they're fair in the way they approach it," Durbin told Fox.
Most Republicans seemed to accept that Obama would not choose a nominee inclined to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion.
"I have no illusions about President Obama appointing a conservative like Alito or Roberts and so forth," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, told CNN.
While Republicans and Democrats largely split on questions of ideology, there was some agreement on the desire to bring more gender and racial diversity to the high court.
"It would be my hope that he would choose someone with diversity," Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, said on NBC's Meet the Press.
"Women are underrepresented on the court. We (also) don't have a Hispanic. African-Americans are underrepresented."
Specter, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, also said that the president may want to break with recent tradition by choosing someone not currently serving on the federal bench.
"All of the justices now have been on the circuit courts of appeals and they have lives and experiences that are all very similar. ... It would be good to get people who know something besides wearing a black robe," Specter said.