By Joan Biskupic and Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died, setting up a major political showdown between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate over who will replace him just months before a presidential election.
"On behalf of the court and retired justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away," Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement on Saturday, calling Scalia, 79, an "extraordinary individual and jurist."
Scalia's death was first reported by the San Antonio News-Express, who said he had apparently died of natural causes while visiting a luxury resort in West Texas.
Obama, who is traveling in California, extended his condolences, and the White House said he would have more to say about Scalia's death later on Saturday. The Supreme Court lowered its U.S. flag in honor of Scalia on Saturday.
The U.S. president will face a stiff battle to win confirmation of a nominee to replace the dead jurist, with Republicans likely to delay in the hope that one of their own wins the November election.
"The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who currently controls if and when the Senate would vote on a nominee.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said Obama should send the Senate a nominee "right away."
Obama could tilt the balance of the nation's highest court, which now consists of four conservatives and four liberals, if he tries to and is successful in pushing his nominee through the Senate confirmation process. Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy sometimes joins with the liberals on high profile issues, including gay rights and the death penalty.
"Justice Scalia was an American hero. We owe it to him, and the nation, for the Senate to ensure that the next president names his replacement," Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, said on Twitter.
The question of replacing Scalia is likely to come up when six of the Republican White House hopefuls participate in a televised debate Saturday evening in South Carolina, which holds its Republican nominating contest on Feb. 20.
Appointed to the top U.S. court in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, Scalia was known for his strident conservative views and theatrical flair in the courtroom.
Scalia's replacement would be Obama's third appointment to the nine-justice court, which is set to decide its first major abortion case in nearly 10 years as well as key cases on voting rights, affirmative action and immigration.
Obama's first two appointments to the court, liberals Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010, both experienced relatively smooth confirmation hearings in the Senate, which was then controlled by Democrats.
This nomination will be different, with Republicans now in charge of the Senate and keen to exert their influence over the process. Obama is likely to be forced into picking a moderate with little or no history of advocating for liberal causes.
Other factors the White House is likely to consider is whether to nominate a woman or a member of a minority group, or someone who fits into both categories.
Among those mentioned within legal circles as potential nominees are Sri Srinivasan, an Indian-American judge who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since May 2013, and Jacqueline Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who has been a judge on the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since May 2012.
Paul Watford, a black judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who was appointed in May 2012, and Jane Kelly, a white woman and former public defender who has served on the St. Louis, Missouri-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since April 2013, also have been touted as possible nominees.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason and Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott and Paul Simao)