Democrats split on Roberts

Senators disagree over whether to voice even symbolic opposition

September 22, 2005|By Maura Reynolds

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats split their ranks yesterday over the nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice, with the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat announcing his support a day after the party's leader said he would oppose Roberts.

The divided vote between the two leaders - Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont - underscored that Democrats have been unable to devise a unified strategy on the nomination, which faces its first vote today in the committee. The full Senate is expected to vote next week.

Following Reid and Leahy, other Democrats began announcing their plans.

Among those who said they would oppose Roberts, four - Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, and Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts - are from states that in recent years have regularly elected Democratic senators.

Other Democrats, from Republican-dominated states or those in which the electorate is closely divided, announced they would support Roberts, including Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana.

With Republicans in the majority in the Senate and Democrats unwilling to launch a filibuster, Roberts' confirmation has not been in doubt. But the question of how Democrats would vote on the nominee, and how they might try to leverage that vote to influence President Bush's choice to fill the court's pending second vacancy, has spurred a fierce debate among Democrats.

"Judge Roberts is a man of integrity," Leahy said in the Senate, explaining his decision to vote in favor of the 50-year-old appellate judge who spent nearly 20 hours fielding questions from the committee during nomination hearings last week. "I can only take him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda."

Those who said they would oppose Roberts, including Boxer, said they were concerned that his early writing suggested a lack of commitment to civil rights.

"The rights and freedoms that have made America a light to the rest of the world could be in serious jeopardy," Boxer said.

"With so many of our fundamental rights hanging in the balance, it is not good enough to simply roll the dice, hoping a nominee has changed his past views. It's not good enough to think, `This is the best we can expect from this president,'" Boxer said on the Senate floor.

Leahy and Kennedy are the only Democrats on the committee who have said how they will vote. There are eight Democrats and 10 Republicans on the panel.

The White House welcomed Leahy's support for Roberts.

"It's encouraging that some Democrats acknowledge that having a conservative judicial approach is not grounds for voting against someone who is qualified in terms of intellect, temperament and integrity," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Leahy and other Senate leaders, including Reid; Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican; and Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, had breakfast with President Bush at the White House and discussed potential nominees to fill the seat that will be vacated by retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Specter and Reid encouraged the president to delay a second nomination, saying it would help senators to see Roberts settle in as chief justice before debating a second nominee.

Specter said O'Connor is prepared to continue on the bench until the Supreme Court's new term ends next June.

"It would be quite a sacrifice for her, but she's prepared to do it if she is asked," Specter told reporters at the White House after seeing the president. "By next June we'll know a lot more about Judge Roberts ... than we do today."

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan indicated that the president planned to move "in a timely manner" with the second nomination.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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