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By Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif./WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama has held preliminary discussions with his team about whom to nominate to the Supreme Court, the White House said on Monday, while accusing Senate Republicans of “bluster” for saying they would not confirm his pick.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters administration officials had started talking with Senate offices about the process, which is shaping up to be an epic fight between Republicans and Democrats in a presidential election year.

Republicans, who control the Senate, say Obama should put off naming a replacement for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died over the weekend, and leave it to the next president to decide. Democrats say it is the president’s responsibility and right to make the choice.

Americans will choose a new president in the Nov. 8 elections. Obama leaves office in January 2017.

Scalia’s death leaves the court evenly divided between liberal and conservative justices just as it is set to decide major cases on abortion, voting rights and immigration.

A growing number of Republican senators have already said they will not support an Obama nominee, including a dozen who are up for reelection in November. On Monday, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio each announced their opposition. Both are up for reelection this year.

“This is not the first time that Republicans have come out with a lot of bluster, only to have reality ultimately sink in,” Schultz said, citing recent spats over raising the U.S. debt limit and approving a nuclear deal with Iran.

“At each pass, they took a hard line. They tried to play politics. But ultimately, they were not able to back up their threats,” Schultz said.

Republicans shrugged off the criticism, pointing to past political battles over Supreme Court nominees. In 2006, Democratic leaders in the Senate, as well as then-Senator Obama, tried but failed to block President George W. Bush’s nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, noted Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“Memories tend to be short around here sometimes,” he said.

OBAMA STRATEGY

Obama, in California for a long-planned summit with Southeast Asian leaders, will return to Washington on Tuesday after a press conference at which he is sure to face questions about his strategy for filling the Supreme Court vacancy.

David Axelrod, a former adviser to the president, said the White House should not make an “overtly political” pick while Republicans were behaving in a such a political manner themselves.

“To me, it makes sense to nominate one of the stellar judges he’s already chosen who has been approved by this same Senate that now refuses to act,” Axelrod said.

One possible contender is Sri Srinivasan, who Republican senators supported in 2013 when he was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Schultz declined to speculate on names or strategy.

Obama will look for a nominee with “impeccable credentials” who believes in adherence to precedent and bringing one’s own ethics and moral bearings to decisions on the court in which the law is not clear, he said.

“The president seeks judges who understand that justice is not about some abstract legal theory, or a footnote in a casebook, but it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of peoples’ lives,” Schultz said.

Leaving the vacancy unfilled could affect the court both this year and next, Schultz said, calling on the Senate to act.

“The Constitution does not include exemptions for election years or for the president’s last term in office. There’s no exemptions for when a vacancy could tip the balance of the court,” he said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alan Crosby, Leslie Adler and Dan Grebler)

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia during a statement delivered in Rancho Mirage, California February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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