WASHINGTON — The possibility of a Democratic filibuster against Supreme Court nominee John Roberts in the Republican-controlled Senate seemed to all but disappear Wednesday, as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pledged that Roberts will receive “full, fair and complete” hearings on his appointment.
While refusing to commit before Roberts’ confirmation hearing, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he hadn’t heard any senators in his party mention filibustering President Bush’s replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
“Do I believe this is a filibuster-able nominee? The answer would be no, not at this time I don’t,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a strong abortion-rights supporter and a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee.
‘Gang of 14’ meets Thursday
Several of the seven GOP members of the so-called “Gang of 14” who brokered a deal over judicial filibusters indicated they thought a filibuster against Roberts would be unwarranted. Most have already praised Roberts, and their support would make it almost impossible for Democrats to carry out a filibuster. The fourteen senators will meet Thursday morning to talk about Roberts.
“I think that Judge Roberts deserves an up-or-down vote, and I hope that the other members of that group agree with me,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he preferred to wait until September to begin hearings, though that would give the Senate just four weeks to complete all action on Roberts.
“And I can assure you that the hearings will be full, fair and complete,” he told reporters in the Capitol.
Specter hinted that he may allow only three or four witnesses at Roberts’ confirmation hearing, and that he doesn’t see it going beyond three or four days.
“But we’re not going to rush it,” he said. “We’re going to take whatever time is needed.”
Abortion rights organizations declared their opposition to Roberts, a 50-year-old federal appeals court judge. But as yet, there were no outright calls for his rejection from any of the Senate’s 44 Democrats.
Bush: Get it done by Oct. 3
President Bush wants the confirmation process fast-tracked. “I urge the Senate to rise to the occasion, provide a fair and civil process and to have Judge Roberts in place before the next court session begins on October the third,” said Bush the morning after he tapped the Harvard-educated lawyer with a sterling resume and impeccable conservative credentials.
If confirmed, Roberts would replace O’Connor. She has frequently been a swing vote in recent years on issues ranging from abortion to affirmative action and states rights.
For her part, O'Connor says she's disappointed Bush named a man to replace her. At a judicial conference in Spokane, Wash., she said she's disappointed to see the number of women on the court drop by 50 percent. But she's not disappointed in Roberts himself, calling him “first rate.”
Because of O'Connor's pivotal role on the court, Roberts’ nomination is a potential political flash point in the Senate and beyond.
Capitol Hill tour
Roberts had breakfast with Bush at the White House, but did not speak to reporters. He saved his talking for later in the day, when the White House scheduled the first in a series of courtesy calls on senators who will ultimately decide whether he takes his place on the high court.
His first stop was in the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who has pledged to meet Bush’s goal of completing the confirmation proceedings before the court’s new term begins on Oct. 3.
Roberts also had a meeting with Reid on his schedule. Bush’s pick “has had an impressive legal career” and other fine qualities, the Nevada lawmaker said in remarks on the Senate floor during the day. But, he added, “they do not automatically qualify John Roberts to serve on the highest court of the land.”
He said senators “must be convinced that the nominee will respect constitutional principles and protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.”
Clashes over abortion
Abortion has already surfaced as a point of contention.
NARAL-Pro Choice America announced its opposition to Roberts even before Bush formally made his selection public in a prime time televised White House appearance on Tuesday.
A group with White House ties unveiled a televised ad campaign aimed at assuring confirmation.
Progress for America called a news conference to announce a television commercial to begin running soon. The group, which coordinates its efforts with presidential aides, pledged in advance to spend at least $18 million on advertising and grass-roots activities to buttress the confirmation prospects of whomever Bush chose.
Abortion, a polarizing issue for lawmakers, will be the “hot button” issue in the confirmation battle, conceded Fred Thompson, the former senator who will shepherd the nomination through the Senate.
At the same time, he cautioned against reading too much into Roberts’ various writings on Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
“Many of the positions he’s taken are positions he took as an advocate ... representing a client,” said Thompson.
Specter, who supports abortion rights, said he was disappointed that some liberal organizations view Roberts as unsuitable over the issue of abortion.
He did say, though, that he felt it appropriate to ask Roberts about his previous statement that Roe v. Wade was settled law. “If he said it’s settled law, it would be relevant to confirm the fact that has been said,” Specter said.
Democrats raised questions and said they would await the hearings to seek answers.
“If he wants to be on the Supreme Court, he has to be more forthcoming .... to convince the American people that a man who could serve on the court for 20 to 30 years really is in the mainstream of American thinking,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Contradictory positions on Roe v. Wade?
Democratic concern over Roberts’ abortion views stem from two seemingly contradictory positions that Roberts took on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
In a brief that he filed with the Supreme Court while serving as deputy solicitor general in the administration of the first President Bush, Roberts said that Roe v. Wade “was wrongly decided and should be overruled.”
Several years later, he told senators during his 2003 confirmation hearings for his current appellate court post that the decision was “the settled law of the land.”
Thompson said the administration expects lawmakers to ask tough questions about Roberts’ abortion views. But he also said they should distinguish between Roberts’ role as a policy advocate as a one-time deputy solicitor general in a Republican administration and his contrasting role as a jurist.
“It’s not a question of whose side he’s on,” Thompson said. “He’s on the side of the litigant that comes into court with the facts and the law on their side. And he will not be prejudging any cases before the committee or anyone else.”
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