Bush turns his attention to filling second Supreme Court vacancy

Sunday, September 18, 2005

WASHINGTON -- With chief justice-nominee John Roberts cruising toward confirmation, President Bush is turning his attention to a second vacancy on the nine-member Supreme Court.

The president extended invitations Friday to key Senate leaders to meet at the White House next week to discuss the seat held by retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

At the same time, several officials said White House counsel Harriett Miers has made calls to senators to discuss the subject.

Bush initially named Roberts to replace O'Connor, but the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist two weeks ago abruptly altered the transition.

Moving quickly, the president announced he wanted Roberts to become chief justice, and said he would find a new replacement for O'Connor.

There was no reaction to Bush's invitation to the meeting from either Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., or Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Both Democrats on the guest list issued challenges of sorts to the White House.

"It's a good first step, but consultation is a two-way street," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who led the Democratic questioning of Roberts at committee confirmation hearings that ended Thursday.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada issued a statement saying that O'Connor has "been a voice of reason and moderation on the court. It is vital that she be replaced by someone like her, someone who embodies the fundamental American values of freedom, equality and fairness."

Officials said Miers had called at least two Senate Democrats, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Evan Bayh of Indiana. Mikulski's office declined to confirm the call, even though an aide had confided earlier in the day to a roomful of other Democrats that it occurred. Bayh's spokesman said he did not know the reason for Miers' call.

Roberts, an appeals court judge and former Reagan administration lawyer, sailed through his hearings and is on track for confirmation in time to take his seat on the court before the new term begins on Oct. 3.

The biggest issue surrounding his appointment is the size of his vote, and in particular, how many Democrats join Republicans in approving his appointment as the nation's 17th chief justice.

At the same time, People For the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other liberal groups that oppose Roberts' confirmation plan intensive lobbying efforts in the coming days in hopes of holding his vote to a minimum.

Leaders of these and other organizations pressed Reid at a closed-door meeting Thursday to help hold Democrats in line. The stated goal, several officials said, was to show Bush that he does not have the leeway to move significantly to the right with his next appointment without risking a major fight at a time when his poll numbers have been in decline.

Reid made no commitment at the meeting, according to several participants. At the same time, he has asked rank-and-file Democrats not to take a public position on Roberts' nomination until after a discussion planned for a closed-door caucus next week.

Reid has not decided how he'll vote, spokesman Jim Manley said Friday.

Rehnquist's death significantly altered the political considerations surrounding Roberts' confirmation for conservatives and liberals alike.

Rehnquist voted in favor of overturning the 1973 landmark ruling that legalized abortion, and confirmation of a like-minded replacement -- should Roberts prove to be one -- will not alter the court's balance on the issue.

O'Connor, on the other hand, is among the justices who have voted to sustain the ruling. As a result, partisans on both sides of the abortion divide view her seat as a crucial battle in a long-running struggle.

The court is scheduled to hear an abortion-related case this fall.

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