Senate committee backs Roberts in 13 to 5 vote

Confirmation likely next week, setting stage for fight over next vacancy

September 23, 2005|By Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jill Zuckman

WASHINGTON -- John G. Roberts Jr. moved a step closer yesterday to becoming the nation's 17th chief justice, as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve his nomination to the Supreme Court, but not before signaling to the White House that its next nominee will face a much tougher fight.

The 13-5 vote sends Roberts' nomination to the Senate floor, where a vote is expected by Thursday. His confirmation is a foregone conclusion: All of the Senate's 55 Republicans and at least a dozen Democrats are expected to vote for him. Once confirmed, Roberts can move into his chambers and start analyzing cases, just days before the court's new term begins Oct. 3.

In supporting Roberts' nomination, the committee's 10 Republicans - and the three Democrats who joined them - stressed his sterling qualifications, keen intellect and respect for the law.

"I don't see how anybody can justify a vote against Judge Roberts, unless they want to nitpick certain areas that you can nitpick on anybody," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.

But Democrats who voted against him said they feared he would be hostile to abortion rights and less protective of civil rights, and they said they needed more information about his views.

Roberts "was no more than an empty slate," said Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said his party would not "play blindman's bluff" in confirming Roberts to such an important post.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment before the committee vote came early, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, announced her opposition to Roberts, after struggling with her decision.

Recounting his testimony during four days of hearings last week, she said she was not confident Roberts would "uphold certain essential legal rights and protections that Americans rely on.

"I take this position mindful of the fact that Judge Roberts will very likely be our next chief justice," Feinstein said, adding, "I'm the only woman on this committee, and when I started, I said that was going to be my bar. And he didn't cross my bar."

With Roberts all but confirmed, many of the senators yesterday looked beyond his confirmation and began laying the groundwork for the widely expected battle to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Her seat is critical to the future of the court, because she has often cast the key fifth vote on controversial social issues.

Moments before the committee's favorable vote on Roberts' appointment to the Supreme Court - where panel members said they expected him to serve for decades - the focus turned to the O'Connor vacancy.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, in response to a question by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he expected the White House to make a nomination "promptly," after the Senate votes on Roberts next week.

"The nomination is obviously one of enormous importance," Specter said. "And we're going to take the time that we need to thoroughly review the record of anybody who comes before the committee."

The three Democrats who joined the committee's 10 Republicans in voting for Roberts - Sens. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont; and Herb Kohl and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin - said they expected the next nominee to be more moderate, in the mold of O'Connor, and to provide more information on his or her views.

Kohl pointed out that Roberts' confirmation to replace conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist would not "radically shift the balance of the court." But had Roberts been replacing O'Connor, as President Bush originally intended before Rehnquist died, "his confirmation would have moved the court to the right, and that would have made a much more difficult decision for me," Kohl said.

Feingold, who had aggressively questioned Roberts during last week's hearings, said Bush "should not count on my approval" of a future nominee who refused to answer questions or provide relevant documents illuminating his or her views.

Even committee Republicans sent strongly worded messages to the White House, which, sources said, has not settled on a nominee to replace O'Connor.

It is confronting a difficult political calculation, pressured by conservatives to make an historic nomination that would change the direction of the court, but keenly aware such a pick would trigger a monumental battle in the Senate with Democrats.

Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jill Zuckman write for the Chicago Tribune.

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