WASHINGTON — Chief Justice-nominee John Roberts, his confirmation secure, picked up support from fractured Senate Democrats on Wednesday as President Bush met lawmakers to discuss a second vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, announced his endorsement shortly after leaving the White House. That guaranteed bipartisan backing for Roberts in Thursday's scheduled vote by the committee.
But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, liberal stalwarts Barbara Boxer of California and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, former presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts and New Jersey Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg all are opposing Roberts. Their stand is evidence of the split among the Senate's 44 Democrats about whether they can or should mount even symbolic opposition to the successor to late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
Because Republicans control the Senate and the committee, majority support was assured for the vote and for confirmation next week in the full Senate.
Some of the Democrats' liberal supporters hoped a strong vote against Roberts would signal to Bush that if he were to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a far-right conservative, it would lead to a bigger fight in the Senate.
Leahy, who has led filibuster fights against Bush's lower court nominees, said in a Senate speech, "I do not intend to lend my support to an effort by this president to move the Supreme Court and the law radically to the right."
But Roberts "is a man of integrity," said Leahy, who told Roberts over the telephone about his decision. "I can only take him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda."
Other Democrats, including Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana, also have announced their support. Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are leaning toward voting for Roberts. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota is viewed as a possible vote for him, as well.
Roberts is "very well credentialed," Landrieu said Wednesday.
The other six Judiciary Democrats — Joseph Biden, Herb Kohl, Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Russell Feingold and Dianne Feinstein — have not announced their votes
Durbin and Schumer were confronted by television producer Norman Lear and other major party supporters during a trip to the West Coast over the weekend, according to party officials familiar with the conversation.
These Democratic supporters are strongly opposed to Roberts. They want Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Schumer, the head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, to oppose his confirmation.
Leahy's decision was "inexplicable and deeply disappointing," said Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way.
The stakes become greater with the next nominee, and "the next nomination is going to be a great deal more contentious," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Judiciary Committee's chairman.
The conservative Roberts would replace Rehnquist, a reliably conservative vote on the court. Bush's next nominee will replace O'Connor, one of the court's swing voters on affirmative action, abortion, campaign finance, discrimination and death penalty cases. Replacing her could give the president a chance swing the court to the right on many issues.
First lady Laura Bush reiterated in an Associated Press interview Tuesday that she hoped the president would name a woman.
Specter cautioned Bush during the Wednesday morning meeting that nominating either Priscilla Owen or Janice Rogers Brown — two appeals court judges Democrats filibustered but eventually allowed to be confirmed — to the O'Connor seat could cause problems, according to a congressional official familiar with the meeting. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because the give-and-take was considered confidential.
The senators offered some names to the president, who did not share his own opinions.
One nominee discussed was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a longtime favorite of the president who would become the first Hispanic named to the court. Reid and Leahy also suggested other names, including Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Ed Prado of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, all Hispanics, officials said. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was considering a diverse list.
Other widely mentioned candidates include federal appellate judges Edith Brown Clement, Edith Holland Jones, Emilio Garza, Alice Batchelder, Karen Williams, J. Michael Luttig, J. Harvie Wilkinson, Michael McConnell and Samuel Alito. Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and Maura Corrigan, a member of the Michigan Supreme Court, are also considered possibilities.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he urged the president to announce his decision within the next 10 days or so. Frist said a new justice could be confirmed "by Thanksgiving if that nomination comes quickly enough."
Specter suggested that the president wait awhile, and said he had talked to O'Connor about staying on through the full 2005-06 term.
"It would be quite a sacrifice for her, but she's prepared to do it if she is asked," Specter said. "By next June we'll know a lot more about Judge Roberts ... than we do today."