WASHINGTON – President Bush has invited key lawmakers to a White House meeting next week to begin consultations on a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), officials said Friday.
The meeting, to be held Wednesday, signals the White House is moving to find a successor to O'Connor as Judge John Roberts (search) awaits confirmation as chief justice.
Bush invited Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search), R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), D-Nev., as well as Sen. Arlen Specter (search) (news, bio, voting record), the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (search) (news, bio, voting record) of Vermont, the panel's senior Democrat, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose the invitations.
One official said the White House has begun making phone calls to key senators to get their views on finding a replacement for O'Connor.
The meeting would mirror a session Bush held with the same four lawmakers several weeks ago as he began consultations to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years.
At the time, O'Connor had announced her retirement and Bush subsequently selected Roberts to fill her seat.
Roberts' nomination was pending in the Senate when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) died nearly two weeks ago. Bush quickly announced he wanted Roberts to succeed Rehnquist, leaving O'Connor on the bench until a replacement could be named, confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.
Roberts' confirmation is virtually assured, following hearings that ended Thursday. Roberts, 50, a former Reagan administration lawyer, is an appeals court judge based in Washington.
The meeting — and others likely to follow — allow the White House to say that Bush was consulting with the Senate before announcing his nominee. The administration has said the president and his aides reached out to most senators before the president settled on Roberts when he was originally nominated to succeed O'Connor.
Yet while consulting with senators, the White House has made the point that Bush did not intend to allow lawmakers to make his selection for him or to have a veto over the person he nominates.
"It's a good first step," Leahy said Friday night, "but real consultation is a two-way street."
Reid urged Bush to choose someone in O'Connor's mold. "Justice O'Connor has been a voice of reason and moderation on the court," the Democratic leader said in a statement.
Bush has been prodded to name either a woman or a minority to replace O'Connor, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' name has been mentioned.
Specter, appearing on television last weekend, urged the president not to name the attorney general, who would be the first Hispanic on the high court.
As far as Roberts is concerned, the only real question left about his nomination is how many Democrats will vote for him to become the nation's 17th chief justice.
This week's grueling four-day Senate confirmation hearings only confirmed for most of the Senate's majority Republicans their contention that Bush's pick to succeed Rehnquist is an ideal choice.
Since Democrats don't plan to filibuster, they must decide if it's worth casting a symbolic vote against the 50-year-old Roberts, knowing they can't stop his confirmation and that Bush will soon choose another conservative to replace O'Connor, a swing vote on the court.
Reid has asked his Democratic caucus members not to make a decision before a closed-door meeting Tuesday. But Sen. Kent Conrad (search) (news, bio, voting record), D-N.D., thinks about half of them ultimately will vote to confirm Roberts.
There are 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont in the Senate, and Conrad told reporters, "I think he can get from 75 to 80 votes."
That would surprise conservatives, who say Democrats are too partisan on judicial picks to consider voting for Roberts. It would also disappoint liberals, who are hoping the Roberts vote can influence Bush's next pick.
Some of the largest liberal advocacy groups met with Reid on Thursday to push for a large vote against Roberts. With the president's job-approval rating at its lowest point because of Hurricane Katrina, dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and rising gas prices, some hope the president can't afford a filibuster fight with Democrats by nominating a hard-line conservative to replace O'Connor.
The last three Supreme Court nominees with significant opposition were Robert Bork (search), who was defeated 58-42 in 1987; Clarence Thomas (search), who was confirmed 52-48 in 1991; and Rehnquist, who was confirmed as a justice in a 68-26 vote in 1971, and as chief in a 65-33 vote in 1986.
No other Supreme Court nominee since 1970 got more than nine "no" votes from the 100-member Senate.
The first Roberts vote will be Thursday in the Judiciary Committee.
The panel's eight Democrats aren't talking about how they will vote. "I haven't made up my mind," Sen. Charles Schumer (search) (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y., said Friday.
Democrats say Roberts didn't answer enough of their questions, and the White House should have released his paperwork from his time working in the solicitor general's office during the George H.W. Bush administration.