By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said on Thursday he would help moderate jurist Merrick Garland win Senate confirmation if President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Senator Orrin Hatch said he had known the federal appeals court judge, seen as a leading contender for the Supreme Court, for years and that he would be "a consensus nominee."
Asked if Garland would win Senate confirmation with bipartisan support, Hatch told Reuters, "No question."
"I have no doubts that Garland would get a lot of (Senate) votes. And I will do my best to help him get them," added Hatch, a former Judiciary Committee chairman.
A Judiciary Committee hearing is the first step toward confirmation of a successor to retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
Obama is due to announce his choice to fill the Supreme Court job in the coming days. Garland is seen as a moderate whose nomination would not turn into a bipartisan fight that would distract the administration from other issues like job creation and financial reform.
The Democratic president's pick is not expected to shift the basic ideological balance of the closely divided court, which now has five conservative and four liberal justices.
Diane Wood, a liberal appeals court judge also widely seen as a finalist for the nomination, would be problematic for Republicans due to her strong support for abortion rights, Hatch said.
The Republican senator reserved judgment on a third possible nominee, U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan. "We'd have to see," Hatch said.
Garland, Wood and Kagan were mentioned on Wednesday when Hatch met Obama at the White House about the nomination.
"Those three names came up," Hatch said when asked about the trio. "So did some others," Hatch added, declining to elaborate.
CRIMINAL LAW BACKGROUND
The Chicago-born Garland, a former prosecutor whose strong criminal law background appeals to conservatives, has been on the U.S. appeals court in Washington since 1997.
Chief Justice John Roberts also served on that appeals court before being named to the Supreme Court in 2005.
A senior Democratic aide agreed with Hatch that Garland would draw bipartisan support, but said it remained unclear if Obama would pick someone more liberal.
Obama is expected to announce his selection early next week, perhaps on Monday. Senate aides speculated Obama was unlikely to do so until Vice President Joe Biden, who once chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, returns from a trip to Europe that wraps up this weekend.
"I know Merrick Garland very well," said Hatch, who helped Merrick win Senate confirmation to the appeals court a decade ago.
"He (Merrick) would be very well supported by all sides (as a Supreme Court nominee) and the president knows that," Hatch said.
(Additional reporting by Jim Vicini and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)