Judiciary Panel Approves Roberts

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 Thursday to confirm John Roberts (search) to be the 17th chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. The full Senate will take up debate on the nomination on Monday, and vote on Thursday.

Roberts won the support of all 10 Republicans on the committee and three Democrats — Ranking Minority Member Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, both of Wisconsin.

Prior to Kohl and Feingold's comments, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., called Leahy "my courageous colleague" for supporting Roberts, saying the nominee has the ability to end the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 splits on issues important to Americans.

"I think he has a real sense for building consensus," said Specter.

Told about the vote during his daily press briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration commends the lawmakers who voted for the nominee.

"We hope that this is setting an example for the way that they will carry forward on the president's next nominee. And we appreciate the Senate moving forward quickly to bring his nomination to a floor vote," McClellan said.

The White House wants Roberts to be in place as the nation's 17th chief justice when the Supreme Court begins its new term on Oct. 3.

Prior to the vote, lawmakers gave several speeches explaining their position. Sen. Joseph Biden said he would oppose Roberts' confirmation because he did not believe the nominee adequately answered questions during last week's confirmation hearings.

"The judge pointed out he's not standing for election, but in truth he is standing for election," Biden of Delaware told his fellow committee members on Thursday. Biden said while he did not doubt Roberts' qualifications for the job, as a representative of the American people he could not vote for Roberts without knowing more about his stance on the right to privacy.

"The right to be let alone is not the business of any legislative body, and he will determine those issues for the next 30 years," Biden said of the 50-year-old appeals court judge.

Earlier, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that while she respected the positions of her colleagues on the panel, she too could not "in good conscience" cast a vote for Roberts.

Feinstein, an abortion rights supporter and only female member of the committee, said she felt Roberts did not adequately answer her questions during 17 hours of questions and answers.

"I knew as little about what Judge Roberts really thought about issues after the hearings as I did before the hearing. This makes it very hard for me," she said.

Feinstein was joined by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., another Judiciary Committee member, who urged senators to oppose Roberts' confirmation.

"No one is entitled to become chief justice of the United States," Kennedy said, adding that voting to confirm the president's nominee for the job "should not require a leap of faith."

The two other Democrats who opposed Roberts were Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Dick Durbin of Illinois.

On Thursday, Leahy repeated comments he made on the Senate floor the day before that despite his reservations regarding Roberts' commitment to civil rights and other issues, he would vote for him to be next chief justice.

"In my judgment, in my experience, but especially in my conscience, I find it is better to vote yes than no," Leahy said. "Ultimately my Vermont roots have always told me to go with my conscience."

Calling Roberts a "man of integrity" and saying legislators "must take him at his word" that he does not have an "ideological agenda," Leahy said he could only trust Roberts that he would let the Supreme Court check presidential power.

Leahy's declaration of support provides political cover for other Democrats who might vote for Roberts, particularly after Tuesday's declaration by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid that he would not back Roberts' nomination.

In a statement released Thursday, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also she would oppose Roberts, saying she did not believe Roberts "presented his views with enough clarity and specificity for me to in good conscience cast a vote on his behalf."

The committee vote is likely to be a preview of the level of bipartisan support Roberts can command in the full Senate. Outside the committee, some Democrats have already stated their positions. New Jersey Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg, both Democrats, will vote against Roberts.

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 privilege for not releasing those papers.

The current White House has, however, released about 70,000 documents from Roberts' tenure in the Reagan administration.

On the other hand, Democratic Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Max Baucus (search) of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico also are expected to vote for the nominee. In all, 11 Democrats have said they would support Roberts, 10 oppose him and 23 haven't gone on the record yet.

Pryor, a member of the "Gang of 14" that earlier this year negotiated an end to the standoff on several federal judicial nominees, made his decision known after the committee vote.

"The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of our liberties and freedom, and appointment for these gatekeepers are rare and pivotal. A Supreme Court justice deserves a high threshold of review and I think John Roberts was put to that test," Pryor said in a floor speech Thursday afternoon.

Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are leaning toward voting for Roberts.

Leahy's support of Roberts upset some liberal interest groups. Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, called it "inexplicable and deeply disappointing."

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, also expressed disappointment in the committee vote.

"Senators should not have to resort to reading tea leaves to understand the record of a nominee for chief justice," he said.

But Progress for America, which supports the president's nominee, praised the three Democrats for setting aside partisanship.

"Ranking Member Leahy and Democrat Senators Kohl and Feingold endorsed not only this exceptional nominee, but the process by which all nominees to the nation’s highest court deserve to be judged. Senators Leahy, Kohl and Feingold have also taken ideology off the table as a reason to vote against a president’s Supreme Court nominee. Future nominees, regardless of ideology, deserve this same fair process," said Progress for America president Brian McCabe

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.

Specter, Leahy, Reid and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., met with Bush at the White House over breakfast Wednesday to discuss O'Connor's replacement. While the senators offered some names, the president did not share his own opinions.

One potential nominee discussed was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search), a longtime favorite of the president who would become the first Hispanic named to the court.

Reid and Leahy also suggested other Hispanic candidates, including Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Ed Prado of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, officials said. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the meeting.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was considering a diverse list.

FOX News' Liza Porteus and Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.