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Looming Supreme Court Battle May Derail Obama's Legislative Agenda

President Obama approaches the podium in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, April 9, 2010, to speak about the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. (AP)

While Supreme Court Justice John Stevens' decision to retire this summer will give President Obama a second chance in as many years to shape the high court, the upcoming confirmation battle during an election year all but guarantees that his ambitious legislative agenda will grind to a halt.

Obama and his Democratic allies are hoping for a swift confirmation process while pushing through the rest of the president's legislative agenda, including an overhaul of Wall Street, immigration reform, climate change legislation, and a comprehensive jobs bill.

But some observers say getting any of that accomplished this year is unlikely because Supreme Court battles slow things down.

"All of the air is sucked out of the town and it's focused on one issue and one issue only," said Roger Pilon, founder and director of the Cato Institute's Center for Constitutional Studies. 

"Mainly the hearings that take place before the Senate Judiciary Committee and of course the run up to that is of course the examination in exquisite detail of the nominee," he said. "And so I don't think the Obama administration is going to get a lot done this summer."

In particular, Pilo said he doesn't expect the Senate to take up the climate change legislation that barely passed the House last year.

Stevens announced his retirement Friday, saying he will step down when the court finishes its work for the summer in late June or early July.

Obama said he will move quickly to name a nominee, as he did with Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year, and that he'll look for someone with similar qualities -- independent mind, fierce dedication to the rule of law.

The timing of Stevens' announcement leaves ample time for the White House to settle on a successor and Senate Democrats, who control 59 votes, to conduct confirmation hearings and a vote. 

While Republicans have not ruled out an attempt to delay confirmation, some Democrats believe the process won't slow Obama's agenda down.

"I think we can both handle the nomination of a justice and get to the critical issues at the same time," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said at a news conference Friday, adding that he expects the Senate to pass financial reform and to tackle a controversial Supreme Court case that rolled back restrictions on campaign spending by corporations.

While Democrats will be looking to move quickly, Republicans smell the possibility of big wins in the fall and might look for opportunities to drag the battle out until after the November elections.

Which leaves the president with a decision to make about what kind of nominee he wants to choose. If he picks a nominee with views that are well left of center, he'll please his base but will need to brace for a fight that brings his legislative agenda to a halt. If he picks a more moderate nominee he may hack off his base but he avoids a big fight and makes it possible to push through at least some of his agenda.

The leading candidates to replace Stevens are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, 49, and federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland, 57, and Diane Wood, 59.

While Obama's nomination is unlikely to change the balance of the high court, these confirmation battles have become knock-down drag-out affairs over the years. The Senate Judiciary Committee is packed with the hardest of the hard core partisans from both sides of the aisle.

For the Republican minority, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking member, will lead a bench of rock-ribbed conservatives like Sens. Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, John Kyl and Tom Coburn.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is a fierce, take-no-prisoners liberal. Joined by stalwarts of the left like Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin and Schumer who is confident that Obama's agenda will not be affected by the confirmation battle.

"At a time when the public is yearning for bipartisanship, the American people hope the president picks a candidate who merits consensus support," he said. "I would similarly expect that the rest of the important agenda that awaits the Senate this year would not be bogged down on the account of this nomination."

Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.

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