Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, has died during a hunting vacation in Texas.
Scalia was the leading conservative voice on the court, and his death will set off a mammoth fight over who should replace him in the heat of a presidential election cycle.
A spokesman for Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeConservative group presses GOP to vote against spending bill Trump accepts Cruz endorsement after saying he wouldn't In reversal, Cruz endorses Trump MORE (R-Utah), a conservative who sits on the Judiciary panel, immediately sent a message on Twitter stating that no nominee from Obama should be considered.
What is less than zero? The chances of Obama successfully appointing a Supreme Court Justice to replace Scalia?— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) February 13, 2016
Several 2016 GOP White House hopefuls and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellConservative group presses GOP to vote against spending bill Top Armed Services Dem lobbies against 9/11 bill McConnell threatens shutdown to keep corporate political spending secret MORE (R-Ky.) said the next president, not Obama, should select Scalia's replacement.
Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidObama’s November surprise This week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Week ahead: Spending fight shifts from Zika to Flint MORE (D-Nev.), called on the GOP-controlled Senate to consider an Obama nominee.
Said Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Dem senator won't back spending bill without visa reforms Top GOP chairmen investigating foreign visa program MORE (D-Vt.), "The American people deserve to have a fully functioning Supreme Court."
"The Supreme Court of the United States is too important to our democracy for it to be understaffed for partisan reasons," he said. "It is only February. The president and the Senate should get to work without delay to nominate, consider and confirm the next justice to serve on the Supreme Court.”
Replacing Scalia with a liberal justice could change the balance of the court under Chief Justice John Roberts, and would mean the election of the president could immediately determine the direction of the Supreme Court.
According to The National Review, it has been 80 years since a Supreme Court justice was confirmed in an election year to a vacancy that arose that year.
The Supreme Court is also likely to be a huge issue in November's race for the Senate majority. Individual senators running for reelection can be expected to see the court's makeup become a top issue in their campaigns.
Democrats need to gain five seats, or four seats if they retain the White House, to win back a Senate majority.
Republicans are defending several seats in states favorable to Democratic presidential candidates, including Wisconsin, Illinois and Pennsylvania. They are also defending seats in Florida, New Hampshire and Ohio, which were won in 2008 and 2012 by Obama.
A fight over the Senate filibuster is likely if the decision on Scalia's successor is punted to 2017. Sixty votes would be necessary to break a filibuster and confirm a Supreme Court justice.
Democrats used the "nuclear option" to change the Senate rules for most nominations so that only a majority vote was needed. But that did not apply to Supreme Court nominees.
Scalia's death comes on the day of the latest GOP presidential debate, the last time the candidates are set to meet before their Feb. 20 South Carolina primary. GOP candidates were quick to put out statements lauding Scalia, who has been a leading figure in the conservative movement for decades.
Roberts in a statement on behalf of all of the current and retired justices confirmed the news.
"I am saddened to report that our colleague Antonin Scalia has passed away," he wrote. "He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family."
"He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution," Abbott wrote. "His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans."
Scalia, born in Trenton, N.J., and raised in Queens, N.Y., was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1986 after serving on the D.C. Circuit Court.
He was a proponent of "originalism," the legal philosophy that held that the meaning of the Constitution should be interpreted as it was first written and not subject to contemporary views.
Scalia was also known for the colorful opinions he issued. In a dissent in King v. Burwell, the landmark healthcare case that upheld the Affordable Care Act, he referred to the majority's reasoning as "pure applesauce" and "jiggery-pokery."
But he also had a history of making controversial comments. When the court heard oral arguments last year for a case on the University of Texas's affirmative action program, Scalia seemed to question the idea of letting black students into selective colleges.