WASHINGTON – The Senate can handle more than one Supreme Court nomination at a time if Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) decided to join Sandra Day O'Connor (search) in retirement, a leading senator said Sunday.
O'Connor has announced her retirement and speculation swirls about the future of the 80-year-old Rehnquist, who has thyroid cancer, and Justice John Paul Stevens (search), who is 85 and healthy.
The Senate has had dual confirmation hearings before and "frankly, it can be done," said GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold hearings on President Bush's picks.
The last time there were simultaneous vacancies at the court was 1971. Justices Hugo Black (search) and John Marshall Harlan (search) retired that September, about a week apart. Their successors were Rehnquist, then assistant attorney general in the Nixon administration, and Lewis Powell (search).
If Rehnquist retires, the Senate could have as many as three hearings going on at the same time. For example, senators would have to hold hearings for a new chief justice if Bush promoted either Justice Antonin Scalia (search) or Clarence Thomas (search) to the top spot.
Bush would then get two more picks, one to replace the promoted justice and a second to replace O'Connor.
The current chairman of the Senate committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Rehnquist's retirement could change the nomination equation for Bush.
"It would give the president a chance to put somebody whom the conservatives would really like very much to fill where Rehnquist has been philosophically on the court, and somebody who is more of a swing voter, like Justice O'Connor," Specter told CBS' "Face the Nation."
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search) is considered a top contender for the high court, but several Republican-leaning groups have complained that he is not conservative enough for their liking.
They would prefer Bush to pick conservative federal appeals court judges Samuel Alito (search), J. Michael Luttig (search), Michael McConnell (search), John Roberts Jr. (search) and J. Harvie Wilkinson III (search).
Gonzales, however, is the president's longtime friend and ally, and his nomination would put a Hispanic on the high court.
Bush on Tuesday will discuss the issue with Specter; Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee; and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Democrats have said they would oppose having simultaneous hearings. They complained bitterly when Hatch held confirmation hearings for multiple federal appeals court nominees at the same time in 2003.
Hatch said he does not expect that to happen with the Supreme Court. There will be "two separate hearings," said Hatch, although he said the decision would have to be made by Specter.
Senators are split on whether Rehnquist will even actually step down anytime soon.
"I expect by the end of the year that he will retire because I think he's really wanted to," Hatch said. "That's my sense, but I've been wrong before."
Specter has repeatedly said he does not expect Rehnquist to retire.
"My own analysis is that the chief is not going to step down as long as his health holds up," Specter said.
"Having being engaged in a bout with cancer myself, I know that it's good to get up every morning and have something that you have to do, something that is important to do," he said.
Leahy and Specter discussed a scenario under which O'Connor might consider changing her mind if Rehnquist retired and Bush offered to make her chief justice.
Several senators mentioned the idea to her, Specter said.
"The response that I heard was that she said she was flattered, that she didn't say no," said Specter, who was not among that group. "I think it would be quite a capping to her career if she served for a time, maybe a year or so."
Given the praise O'Connor has received since her retirement announcement, she would be a lock to be confirmed as chief justice, Leahy said. "I think it would be a very doable thing," he said.