Senate Democrats are urging President Bush to consult with them on a possible Supreme Court nomination to help avoid the kind of controversy that engulfed his lower court picks.

"The way to avoid the divisiveness and discord that occurred over past judicial nominations is through consensus and cooperation in the selection of future candidates," the Senate Democrats said in a letter sent to the White House on Thursday.

The letter, signed by 43 of 44 Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, called bipartisan cooperation "the best path to a fair and reasoned confirmation process."

Sen. Charles Schumer (search), D-N.Y., revealed the letter's existence during a speech on the Senate floor Thursday. A copy was obtained by The Associated Press.

Sen. Robert Byrd (search) of West Virginia did not sign, but he "agrees with the thrust and the concept of our letter but felt so strongly about the issue he is sending his own letter," Schumer said.

Republicans immediately responded, with Sen. John Cornyn (search), R-Texas, saying Democrats were trying to politicize the Supreme Court nomination process before it begins.

"Senior Democrats continue to demand a future role in selecting the president's judicial nominees, while preventing the confirmation of current nominees," Cornyn said.

Court watchers expect a Supreme Court vacancy during Bush's second term. Chief Justice William Rehnquist (search), 80, has cancer, and there is talk that Justices Sandra Day O'Connor (search), 75, and John Paul Stevens (search), 85, also might consider stepping down.

A conservative group, Progress for America, is running television ads charging that Democrats "will attack anyone the president nominates" to a vacancy. "A nominee deserves real consideration, instead of instant attacks," says the ad, running nationally on cable television through July 1.

Schumer, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, and Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, called for Bush to consult with Democrats.

"It doesn't take much to get our consent," Kennedy said. "All the president has to do is seek out his preferred non-ideological choices, ask us about them, and listen to our answers."

Democrats have spent most of the year blocking seven of Bush's nominations to the U.S. Appeals Court, but a deal by a group of centrists allowed the confirmation of five of those nominees.

The group of seven Democrats and seven Republicans also pledged not to filibuster judicial nominees, except in extraordinary circumstances. At the same time, they agreed to oppose attempts by GOP leaders to change filibuster procedures.