WASHINGTON — President Trump’s reported decision to nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court on Saturday instantly ignited a partisan and ideological battle that will thrust tinderbox issues like abortion, religion and women’s rights into an already volatile presidential campaign.
In choosing Judge Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the president opted for the candidate most likely to thrill his conservative base and outrage his liberal opponents, drawing sharp lines on some of the most divisive disputes in American life at a time when voters have already begun to cast ballots in the contest for the White House.
Never in American history has a Supreme Court confirmation fight played out to conclusion so close to a presidential election and the confluence of the debate in the halls of the Senate with the debate on the campaign trail injected further uncertainty into the fall. Mr. Trump hopes to galvanize conservatives and change the subject from the coronavirus pandemic that has killed 203,000 Americans while his adversaries seek to rally liberals over the prospect of the Supreme Court turning further to the right.
Mr. Trump told advisers that he had settled on Judge Barrett as his nominee but neither confirmed nor denied reports about his decision before the White House ceremony he scheduled to formally announce the decision on Saturday afternoon. Judge Barrett was not spotted leaving her home in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday morning, lending some last-minute suspense to the process, but White House allies busily prepared statements welcoming her expected nomination.
The president, addressing a late-night campaign rally in Newport News, Va., on Friday, rejected complaints by Democrats that he was rushing to fill the seat too close to an election even though Senate Republicans refused to even consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland made months before the 2016 election. But he hedged slightly on whether the Senate will vote by Nov. 3 or wait until a lame-duck session afterward.
“The Democrats are saying, ‘Well, it’s the end of a term,’” Mr. Trump told supporters who chanted “fill that seat” during the rally. “You know, we have a lot of time left. Think of this. If it were them — don’t forget, we don’t have to do it by the election, but we should really be able. That would be a great victory, going into the election with that biggest of all victories.”
He added: “You know, they say the biggest thing you can do is the appointment of judges, but especially the appointment of Supreme Court justices. That’s the single biggest thing a president can do because it sets the tone of the country for 40 years, 50 years, I mean a long time.”
Indeed, Judge Barrett, 48, would be the youngest member of the current court and could serve for decades, underscoring the stakes. Mr. Trump has long believed that one of the pivotal reasons for his election victory in 2016 was his appeal to conservatives eager to fill the seat held open by Senate Republicans after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death that February.
Justice Barrett’s nomination could arguably be the most consequential since President George Bush appointed Judge Clarence Thomas to succeed Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1991, replacing the court’s most liberal member with a jurist who would prove to be its most conservative. Judge Barrett, who was seen as the most committed conservative on Mr. Trump’s list of finalists, would similarly take the seat of a liberal justice in a sharp philosophical shift.
Judge Barrett has been described as a protégée and intellectual successor to Justice Scalia, for whom she clerked. Educated at Notre Dame Law School, she served on its faculty for years before Mr. Trump appointed her in 2017 to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
During her confirmation hearings to that post, Democrats questioned her public statements and Catholicism, making her a hero to religious conservatives who denounced what they called unfair attacks on her faith. But liberals pointed to her writings to say they feared she would undo Roe v. Wade and other rulings on gay rights, health care and other issues.
“If she is nominated and confirmed, Coney Barrett would work to dismantle all that Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for during her extraordinary career,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, which promotes rights for L.G.B.T.Q. Americans, said before Mr. Trump’s announcement. “An appointment of this magnitude must be made by the president inaugurated in January.”
Jeanne Mancini, the president of March for Life, an anti-abortion group, called Judge Barrett’s reported selection “exciting news” for conservatives. “We have confidence that she will fairly apply the law and constitution as written, which includes protecting the most vulnerable in our nation: our unborn children,” she said.
Polls show that most Americans agree that the winner of the Nov. 3 election should fill the seat rather than Mr. Trump rushing through an appointment before then. But the president made clear this past week that he wanted his pick on the court in time to rule on any challenges arising from the election itself, guaranteeing in his mind an additional vote to potentially secure a second term.
To confirm her by then would require a 38-day sprint through a process that since 1975 has typically taken twice as long, all at the same time many senators want to be in their home states to campaign. No seriously contested Supreme Court nomination has been confirmed so quickly since 1949.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will vet Judge Barrett’s nomination and himself an incumbent facing a serious election challenge, planned to outline the confirmation process for the first time in a statement Saturday night after the president’s announcement.
Mr. Graham’s schedule will call for significantly less time than usual for lawmakers to meet with and vet Judge Barrett than recent nominees, cutting to about two weeks a stage of the process that has typically lasted six. White House officials had already started reaching out Thursday and Friday to begin scheduling courtesy visits to lawmakers who wanted them, even before there was a nominee.
Mr. Graham expects to hold four days of confirmation hearings the week of Oct. 12, and Senate Republicans were aiming for a confirmation vote in the final days of October, although Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has kept his cards close to his vest rather than fully commit to a pre-election vote.
Republicans argue that the truncated timeline is appropriate given that Judge Barrett was vetted by the Senate as recently as 2017 for her current post. But if Republicans aim to have a new justice installed before the election, it leaves little room for error or unexpected delay.
Republicans expect to lose two of their more moderate members. Senator Susan Collins of Maine has said that she will not vote to confirm anyone before Election Day out of fairness. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska took a similar position and then backtracked, but she is a vocal supporter of abortion rights and is expected to look skeptically upon the nominee’s views of Roe vs. Wade. The defections, though, are unlikely to go any farther and Mr. McConnell has made clear to colleagues that he is pleased with Judge Barrett’s selection.
With little chance of stopping Judge Barrett’s confirmation, Senate Democrats hoped to stir public outrage over what they called an election-season power grab by Republicans that could have a lasting and damaging effect on the lives of Americans. For now, the fight appeared to have unified Senate Democrats in opposition to any nominee — no small feat given the handful of moderates in their ranks. And Democrats have made clear in recent days that they intend to hammer away at Judge Barrett’s views on abortion and the Affordable Care Act.
“You’ll find there will be a wall of opposition, pretty unyielding, based on the rush to confirm a justice before the inaugural, denying the American people any voice in choosing the next justice,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, who sits on the Judiciary Committee.
Judge Barrett was always Mr. Trump’s front-runner for the next Supreme Court vacancy even before Justice Ginsburg’s death on Sept. 18. When Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the court was endangered in 2018 over allegations of sexual misconduct, Judge Barrett became the top contender to take his place if his confirmation had failed.
That summer, she underwent an initial round of vetting that included an F.B.I. background check and lawyers working on her potential nomination did a substantive vetting of all of her legal opinions, law review articles and other writing and public remarks to get a full sense for her judicial philosophy.
At that time, federal prosecutors were also asked to find religious liberty legal arguments that could help blunt criticisms that Judge Barrett’s deeply held Catholic beliefs could improperly affect her ability to serve as a justice, according to a prosecutor who contributed to that work. Officials expect that legwork to help streamline her nomination process this time.
Ms. Barrett is a favorite among conservatives and the Federalist Society. At the group’s gala last year, the audience cheered when Justice Kavanaugh took to the stage to give the night’s keynote speech, and some in the crowd yelled, “Amy Coney Barrett’s next” as he prepared to speak.
Ms. Barrett is highly regarded by Vice President Mike Pence, who is from Indiana, and Mr. Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, could play an important role in her confirmation process, akin to that played by Donald F. McGahn II when he was the White House counsel, according to an administration official.
Katie Benner contributed reporting from Washington, Maggie Haberman from New York and Rebecca Ruiz from South Bend, Ind.