WASHINGTON – Now that the Supreme Court (search) has recessed for the summer, lawmakers are bracing for what may be the most heated judicial nomination battle in nearly two decades.
While few high court watchers actually expected Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) to announce his resignation on Monday — to do so on the last day of the session would have been atypically showy of the reserved Midwesterner — most believe he will step down before the fall.
Rehnquist, who has been ill with thyroid cancer since last fall, missed several sessions of the 2004 term. He appeared in court Monday with a trachea tube to ease breathing and coughed several times while speaking.
As reaction to the court's most controversial decisions — most notably on the Ten Commandments — started dying down, lawmakers came out Tuesday hoping to the lay the ground rules for the battle ahead.
"It is ridiculous for some to claim the founders would not have wanted consultation," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on the Senate floor. "Before any person can be appointed, we have to consider what's best for the whole country ... No president can avoid the requirement of advice and consent," he said, echoing the minority party's pleas to President Bush to consult them on his pick.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist once again sought to soothe anxious Democrats' nerves.
The Bush administration is "reaching out to solicit names and ideas" from senators of both parties, he said Tuesday. He also said that the consultative process was already under way.
But Democrats have said the nomination process so far has been less than inclusive. An aide to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., told FOX News that while White House Counsel Harriet Miers (search) did pay a "courtesy call" to the minority leader, no names were floated and the nomination process was not discussed.
The aide also said Reid had urged Miers to tell the president to consult Democrats before selecting a nominee, but that she refused to discuss specifics. The White House has been silent on the matter, telling the press that it is inappropriate to discuss a vacancy on the court when one doesn't exist yet.
"I am confident and hopeful the president will follow that pesky little Constitution," Reid later said in a briefing with reporters.
Christian conservatives who are often frustrated with the justices' rulings on civil rights and abortion are eager to see the court remade in their image. Many say they believe that Bush will jump on future vacancies to do so, but that would undoubtedly mean a protracted, nasty fight in Congress.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Frist pre-empted the debate by saying that attempts to create a "war room" to fight Bush's nominees ahead of any nomination "is not the prelude to a fair, honest, and dignified debate.
"That's why I call on senators to denounce the effort of any outside group to defame the character or distort the record of any judicial nominee. Senators, if they so choose, can be a model of civility and a source for inspiration in these debates. And I call upon them to do just that," Frist said.
Kennedy said the permanence of a Supreme Court justice's tenure justifies an intense political fight.
"The next person who serves on the Supreme Court of the United States will not just serve for the remainder of the Bush administration ... we cannot accept a choice based on partisan politics and ideological agendas," Kennedy said.
Some Republicans say they believe that nominating a hardliner could also wind up hurting the president.
"I think there are ways in which the president might minimize the pain, so to speak," former independent counsel Kenneth Starr (search) told FOX News. "There are persons out there sitting on the bench, there might be members of the Senate who might be able to make it to the bench — not without controversy because any nominee will see controversy — but might be able to make it through."
FOX News' Jim Angle and Jane Roh contributed to this report.