WASHINGTON – The ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont's Patrick Leahy (search), said Wednesday that despite his reservations regarding John Roberts' (search) commitment to civil rights and other issues, he would vote for him to be next chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.
"Is a 'no' vote the easier and more popular one? Of course, for me it is, especially with my constituency," said Leahy. "But in my judgment, in my experience, but especially in my conscience, I find it is better in this nomination to vote 'yes' than 'no.'"
Calling Roberts a "man of integrity" and saying legislators "must take him at his word" on how he would approach the law, Leahy said he could only trust Roberts that he would let the Supreme Court check presidential power.
Leahy's declaration of support ensured that the committee vote on Roberts, scheduled for Thursday, would not be along party lines. It also provided political cover for other Democrats who might vote for Roberts.
The Judiciary Committee includes 10 Republicans and eight Democrats, and the committee vote is expected to be a preview of the level of bipartisan support Roberts can command in the full Senate.
Nonetheless, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., another Judiciary Committee member, urged senators to oppose Roberts' confirmation.
"Judge Roberts said that a judge should be like an umpire, calling the balls and strikes, but not making the rules," said Kennedy. "But we all know that with any umpire, the call may depend on your point of view. ... In critical cases, it may well depend on where they are standing when they make the call. The same holds true of judges."
"There is clear and convincing evidence that John Roberts is the wrong choice for chief justice," he added. "I oppose the nomination, and I urge my colleagues to do the same."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also announced he wouldn't support Roberts, although he said he doesn't doubt the nominee will be confirmed.
"It may turn out that he will be an outstanding chief justice but I can't say with confidence that I know on a sufficient number of constitutional issues how he will rule or what his position is," said the former presidential hopeful. "I still find that something essential is missing … a genuine exchange of information and exchange of ideas."
Kerry and other Democrats have taken slaps at the White House for not releasing notes and memos from Roberts' time in the solicitor general's office during the administration of George H.W. Bush. The White House has cited attorney-client priviledge for not releasing those papers.
The current White House has, however, released about 70,000 documents from Roberts' tenure in the Reagan administration.
"We were Judge Roberts' clients while he was in the solicitor general's office, we have a right to know what he thought when he was working for the American people," Kerry argued.
But Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, trying to turn attention to an agriculture spending bill before the Senate in between the Democrats' speeches on Roberts, said he might as well take a moment "to get a few things off my chest" in regards to Roberts' nomination.
Bennett said Kerry and other Democrats have conveniently omitted from their arguments for releasing Roberts' solicitor general documents that "every living solicitor general who is living, regardless of political party, says that is the bad thing to do, that is the wrong interpretation of the law."
Kennedy and Kerry aren't the first Democrats to oppose the nominee. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), who is not on the Judiciary Committee, announced his intention to vote against Roberts' confirmation.
"For me, Mr. President, this is a very close question," said Reid on the Senate floor. "But I must resolve my doubts in favor of the American people, whose rights would be in jeopardy if John Roberts turns out to be the wrong person for this job."
The Nevada Democrat conceded that Roberts was an "excellent lawyer" and "thoughtful and mainstream judge who would make a fine Supreme Court justice."
Reid added that a series of memos concerning civil-rights legislation Roberts wrote while working in the Reagan administration had led to serious doubts.
"It is now clear that as a young lawyer, John Roberts played a significant role in shaping and advancing the Republican agenda to roll back civil-rights protections," Reid said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a Judiciary Committee member, on Wednesday blasted Reid's comments, blaming opposition to Roberts on outside interest groups that do not represent the "mainstream of America" or "rational thought."
"What worries me so much is they seem to have such undue influence over the decision-making process of some members when it comes to judicial nominations," said Cornyn, adding that he respected Leahy's decision to vote for Roberts.
"Is there any nominee of this president that they [Democrats] can vote for?" wondered Cornyn. "I fear the answer to that is, the answer is 'no,' that for some of our colleagues, there is no nominee from this president for the United States Supreme Court that they can vote for. And that should sadden all of us."
Some court-watchers have suggested that by voting "yes" on Roberts, Democrats would be better positioned to oppose the next Bush nominee, who, by replacing frequent "swing voter" Sandra Day O'Connor (search), would do more to change the political balance of the court.
In an editorial on Wednesday, The Washington Post also criticized Reid for his position, noting that during the six years of President Clinton's time in the White House when Republicans controlled the Senate, the chamber confirmed 245 of Clinton's judges.
"If Republicans had been applying Mr. Reid's standard, they would have been within their rights to reject them all," the Post said.
Roberts did publicly win the support Tuesday of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (search), R-Ga., with whom he met on Tuesday.
Chambliss explained to senators that the Reagan administration was against quotas, not affirmative action, and that President Reagan had always argued a big difference existed between the two.
After their meeting, Chambliss said Roberts deserved to be confirmed.
"If integrity counts, if honesty counts, if knowledge of the law counts, if family values counts, If being a true American counts, you can't vote against this man," he said.
Leahy told FOX News on Tuesday that Reid had not applied pressure on rank-and-file Senate Democrats to vote against Roberts.
Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Montana Sen. Max Baucus (search) of Montana also are expected to vote for the nominee.
"I'm inclined to vote for him unless something else comes up," Baucus said after a meeting of his party's senators on Tuesday. "It's a close call."
Added Sen. Ben Nelson (search), D-Neb.: "I've not seen anything that would cause me to vote against" Roberts.
Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are leaning toward voting for Roberts, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota is viewed as a possible vote for him as well.
Roberts is "very well credentialed," Landrieu said Wednesday.
The other six Judiciary Democrats — Joseph Biden, Herb Kohl, Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Russell Feingold and Dianne Feinstein — have yet to announce their votes. But both Schumer and Feinstein said during last week's confirmation hearings that they were both disappointed at the lack of depth in Roberts' answers and were unsure how they would vote.
FOX News' Liza Porteus and Brian Wilson contributed to this report.