As President Obama considers his options for a Supreme Court vacancy, Senate Republicans are preparing to use the upcoming hearings to explore what they say is the expanded role of government under the Obama presidency, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee told ABC News.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said in an interview that Republicans are planning a sharp focus on the president's approach to governance -- regardless of who the president nominates -- to ensure that the newest member of the high court won't be a "rubber-stamp" for the Obama agenda.
"It's pretty clear to me that President Obama sees judges as allies in an effort to promote an agenda he thinks is best for the country," Sessions said. "And a lot of people see it that way -- he's just part of that movement.
"And that's not law. That's not law -- that's politics. And it's a poison in our legal system, and the American people are not happy about it. They see it for what it is, and they don't think that courts ought to be there to rubber-stamp President Obama's or anybody's agenda."
Sessions said Republicans on the Judiciary Committee will bring a particular scrutiny to the nominee's stance on such issues as the new health care law's requirement that individuals purchase insurance; government bailouts of private businesses; property rights issues; gun rights; and the president's criticism of the Citizens United ruling that opened the door to corporate campaign contributions.
"What I'm hearing from my constituents is a cry that Washington is losing all recognition that it is a government of limited, delegated powers, and that it is assuming roles that go far beyond anything the governed ever thought that they would be doing," Sessions said.
"You have the fundamental question: Is this what the framers [of the Constitution] had in mind when they created a limited government, and created a Commerce Clause?" he added.
While the specific response from Republicans will of course depend on the nominee and his or her record and writings, Sessions said he's not optimistic about what he presumes will be the nominee's approach on the most pressing issues of the day, given what the president has said publicly about his policies, plus the role of the courts.
"The nominee's entitled to be fairly treated, to be judged on their own record -- not on the president's speech or somebody else in Congress who may have said this or that," he said. "But some of these issues are pretty fundamental."
Sessions: Obama's Approach is 'Dangerous'
Sessions' comments amount to a sharp critique of Obama's broad approach to governing and the judiciary, at a time that the president is honing his short list. It marks an attempt to frame a high-profile series of confirmation hearings, in a politically charged electoral environment.
Asked to respond to Sessions' remarks, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president is prepared for Republicans to start a nomination fight.
"The president will follow through on his promise to nominate someone with a keen legal mind and superb credentials, but we expect Republicans to pick a partisan political fight no matter who the president chooses," Earnest said.
Republicans, with just 41 Senate seats, hold little realistic chance of blocking a nominee for the high court who has the wide support of Democrats. But they do retain the option of mounting a filibuster.
Sessions said he hopes not to filibuster a nominee, but said that Republicans feel that it's appropriate under "extraordinary circumstances." That was the standard set by the so-called "Gang of 14" in 2005, when a coalition of moderate senators came together to defuse a stand-off in which Democrats were holding up President George W. Bush's court picks.
In the meantime, Sessions said he's troubled by the way the president appears to be thinking about his court pick.
When Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement earlier this month, Obama said he'd seek a replacement with a "keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people."
Sessions said that approach is "dangerous."
"It is a call on the courts to abandon the clearly recognized American standard that you find the facts honestly, and you apply it to the law fairly interpreted," Sessions said.
For their part, Senate Democrats have served notice that they want the hearings to be something of a referendum on what they view as "activist" rulings from the Supreme Court, particularly the Citizens United ruling on campaign finance.
"A recent pattern has emerged of Supreme Court decisions by a slim, activist, conservative majority," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said after a bipartisan meeting with the president last week. "These opinions have not followed the law, but have overridden congressional intent and misconstrued laws designed to protect the American people, tilting the scales of justice in favor of corporate rights and against the rights of individual citizens."
White House Wants New Supreme Court Justice Seated Before August Recess
The White House has indicated that it would like to see the new justice confirmed before the August recess. Sessions said that's a "realistic" goal, but said it shouldn't be viewed as a hard and fast deadline.
"We should try to accomplish that. But we've had a number of nominees who haven't promptly provided documents that they're supposed to provide, and you can always have something controversial," he said. "We shouldn't be in a mode that we've got an absolutely firm deadline that's got to be met -- it's not so."
Sessions also recounted an episode from last week's meeting between the president and top Senate leaders from both parties.
At the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., mentioned that he and Sessions were the only politicians in the room who had never voted to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. The Democrats in the room -- Leahy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Vice President Joe Biden, and the president himself -- all voted to block Justice Samuel Alito's ascension to the high court.
"We've not filibustered a Supreme Court nominee. I would hope we won't again," Sessions said. "It's pretty bold for [Democrats] to go around saying how they opposed filibusters and people need up-and-down votes -- give me a break. Let me tell you -- that is a breath-taker for those of us who have been around."