updated 7/12/2005 3:45:57 PM ET 2005-07-12T19:45:57

Top Senate Democrats floated the names of potential candidates for the Supreme Court on Tuesday in a meeting with President Bush, describing them as the type of nominee who could avoid a fierce confirmation battle.

Several officials familiar with the discussion said Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Ed Prado of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, both of whom are Hispanic, were among the names mentioned as Bush met with key lawmakers from both parties to discuss the first high court vacancy in 11 years.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, noting a commitment by those involved not to discuss names.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee, refused to confirm that they offered those two names, but said “those are two of the three I would think would have good support from both parties.”

Bush to be 'deliberate'
Bush was noncommittal about his choice to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has resigned effective with the confirmation of her successor. “I’m going to be deliberate in the process,” he told reporters at the White House.

Bush “didn’t give us any names” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said after the session had broken up.

Besides Reid and Leahy, Bush met with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card also attended.

The administration has consulted widely with Democrats in the 10 days since O’Connor announced her plans to resign, and the early morning session at the White House was part of that effort.

The meeting came at a time when the president is under pressure from conservatives who want a court that will reverse precedent on abortion rights, affirmative action, homosexual rights and other issues. Some conservatives have criticized Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is close to Bush and frequently mentioned as a potential candidate, questioning whether he would vote to overturn the landmark 1973 court ruling that gave women the constitutional right to an abortion.

Seeking a 'consensus candidate'
For their part, Democrats are urging Bush to seek a “consensus candidate,” one who would win confirmation without a bitter struggle. But they have relatively little leverage in purely numerical terms. Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate and can confirm any of Bush’s picks unless Democrats mount a filibuster.  The White House would need 60 votes to overcome that.

Democrats have done extensive research on dozens of potential replacements for O’Connor and the names of Sotomayor and Prado have emerged, along with others, as among those viewed as acceptable. Leahy suggested the names in the meeting, although Reid’s presence signaled his approval.

According to an official government Web site, Sotomayor was named a U.S. District Court judge in 1991 by former President George H.W. Bush, the president’s father, and confirmed in August 1992. President Clinton nominated her for a seat on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997, and she was confirmed in 1998.

President Reagan nominated Prado to a seat on the U.S. District Court in 1984. The current President Bush picked him for his current post in 2003, and he was confirmed on a vote of 97-0.

Good first step
Frist praised Bush for reaching out to Democrats, saying that what the administration is doing “is pretty unprecedented if you look back in history. He is reaching out aggressively. He has contacted—he or his staff have contacted over 60 United States senators, each of the members of the Judiciary Committee, over half or two-thirds of the Democrats.”

Democrats said that was fine — as far as it went.

“This certainly is a good first or second step,” Reid said at a news conference outside the White House. “This process needs to move forward. And I was impressed with the fact the president said it would; there will be more meetings, consultations.”

Officials familiar with the meeting said Reid was more blunt in private, telling Bush he didn’t want to wind up reading about the president’s eventual pick in the newspaper without having had a chance to offer his views beforehand.

Laura Bush, too, got in some gentle lobbying during the day.

First lady weighs in
“I would really like him to name another woman,” the first lady said on NBC’s “Today” show, in an interview from Cape Town, South Africa, where she is traveling. “I admire and respect Sandra Day O’Connor, but I know that my husband will pick somebody who has a lot of integrity and strength.”

Bush seemed a bit surprised that Mrs. Bush told reporters what she thought. “I can’t wait to hear to her advice — in person — when she gets back,” he said in the Oval Office after a meeting with the leader of Singapore.

McClellan would not say whether the president was leaning toward selecting a woman. “The president is going to consider a diverse group of individuals for the vacancy that is available,” his spokesman said.

Asked about Democrats’ objections to specific candidates said to be under consideration, McClellan said, “No individual should have veto power over a president’s selection.”

Bush and Senate Republicans have said they hope to have O’Connor’s replacement confirmed and sworn in before the court convenes for its new term in October.

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