WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers who have spoken to President Bush about possible choices for a Supreme Court nominee appear to be very pleased with the level of consultation the president is extending to them.
The seven Democrats who made up one side of the "Gang of 14" responsible for circumventing an end to the filibuster process on Bush's appellate court nominees met Tuesday afternoon about Bush's upcoming decision and emerged with a positive outlook.
Sens. Bill Nelson (search ), D-Fla., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said they are hearing "positive noises" as a result of their meeting with Bush.
According to the two lawmakers, "the agreement will hold" to avert a Senate showdown on the use of the so-called "nuclear option" for judicial nominees. They said they are hoping for "further consultation" with the president as his short list of possible nominees gets smaller, and they will not waver from the agreement with the president.
Senate leaders responsible for pushing through Bush's nominees said Tuesday they hope to be presented with a nominee in time for a Senate vote before October.
"I think that we're at a time in the history of this country where we've had enough discussion, debate and contention on judges," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday morning after Bush met with a group of Senate leaders. "Senator [Bill] Frist and I want to avoid that as the two leaders of the Senate."
Asked Tuesday how close he was to making a decision, Bush told reporters, "Closer today than I was yesterday."
"I'm going to be deliberate in the process," Bush said.
Bush consulted face-to-face Tuesday morning with the four top senators involved in ushering through the Supreme Court nominee — Reid; Frist, the Senate majority leader; Sen. Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Sen. Patrick Leahy (search) of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
"He has reached out aggressively," and either the president or his staff has contacted 60 members of the Senate, including members of the Judiciary Committee, both Democrat and Republican, Frist said after the meeting. "The process is going to continue ... we're ready — we made it very clear to the president we expect a process in the U.S. Senate that is fair, that treats the nominee with dignity and respect."
In recent political fighting over former judicial nominees sent to the Senate by Bush, Democrats have charged that the president picked too many people out of the "mainstream" and didn't consult enough with lawmakers before he formally sent those names to Capitol Hill for consideration. Reid conceded that Bush is talking to the Senate.
"This process needs to move forward and I was impressed that the president said it would," Reid told reporters after the meeting. But, he added, "We have a long ways to go."
Specter said the Constitution's advice and consent clause is being followed and that the Senate's "duty" is to have a justice in place by the first Monday in October when the Supreme Court starts its new term. Lawmakers' debate time is somewhat limited in August, due to their scheduled summer recess.
"We want to see to it we don't have somebody so-called, 'hanging out there' too long," Specter said.
The Judiciary Committee chairman also blasted special interest groups for their past campaigns aimed at defeating or pushing certain nominees. Calling these campaigns "insulting" and "counterproductive," Specter said, "to the extent we can turn that off of the process, it would be much, much better off."
Both Specter and Leahy urged Bush to name someone out of the normal judicial circuit and someone who doesn't necessarily have the same exact views as outgoing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search).
"It would be good to have some diversity," Specter said.
Added Leahy: "Consider someone outside the judicial monastery."
"This is an important decision and it may be the first of many on this court," said the Vermont lawmaker. "It's the ultimate check and balance — let's seek somebody who would unite, can unite us."
Bush on Tuesday told reporters that he will look at several aspects of any candidate: "The character of the person, the integrity of the person, the ability of the person to do the job and the philosophy of the person … [someone who will] not use the bench to legislate."
Bush added: "We're definitely considering people from all walks of life."
A senior Democratic aide said Democrats offered up three names during Tuesday's meeting as possible court candidates: Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Ed Prado of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, a U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas who also chairs the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
The aide, who characterized the meeting as very positive, said Democrats suggested those three candidates as consensus candidates who "would have an easy time" clearing the Senate.
The aide said neither the president nor Chief of Staff Andy Card suggested any names themselves, and that Reid made it very clear he hoped Bush would consult with Democrats with specific names before any announcement is made. The aide said Reid told the president that he didn't want Democrats to be in the position of learning the president's nominee by reading about it in the media. The aide added that the White House made "no specific promise of that" but gave a general pledge to consult further.
Reid said several senators had suggested names to the White House, but it's important that Bush share names, too, because he has "hundreds of names" to consider. Asked about Democrats' objections to specific candidates said to be under consideration, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "No individual should have veto power over a president's selection."
Added Frist in a statement: "Despite this unprecedented effort by the president, I am concerned that no amount of consultation will be sufficient for some of my colleagues. That's because co-nomination, rather than consultation, may be their ultimate goal. Some senators may prefer to choose the nominee for the president. But that is not how the Constitution works. The president has the power to nominate, and the Senate offers advice and consent."
McClellan also did not say whether the president was leaning toward selecting a woman. "The president is going to consider a diverse group of individuals for the vacancy that is available," said McClellan.
For her part, first lady Laura Bush, traveling in South Africa on Tuesday, told an American television network that she hopes Bush will select a woman.
"I would really like him to name another woman," Mrs. Bush said. "I admire and respect Sandra Day O'Connor, but I know that my husband will pick somebody who has a lot of integrity and strength."
Bush has appointed television actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson to liaise between the White House and Senate once a nominee is named. A key Democratic source on judiciary-related matters said Tuesday that Democrats have not tapped former Majority Leader George Mitchell as their point person on strategy.
"Is not confirmed. No where close (sic). Probably not happening. Don't even think he's been approached," the source wrote in an e-mail response to questions. Another Democratic source said that while Mitchell as the Democrats' strategist is something that's "being contemplated, I don't believe the trigger's been pulled on it."
FOX News' Brian Wilson, Julie Asher and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.