WASHINGTON – With the confirmation of chief justice nominee John Roberts (search) guaranteed, Democrats on Wednesday promised a battle if President Bush's next nominee is a hard-right conservative.
"If the president sends us a nominee who is committed to an agenda of turning back the clock on civil rights, workers' rights, individual autonomy or other vital constitutional protections, there will likely be a fight," said Sen. Charles Schumer (search), of New York, chairman of the Democrats' Senate campaign committee and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Schumer's remarks came as Republicans lavished praise on Roberts, headed for certain confirmation on Thursday, and urged Democrats to provide respectful, nonpartisan debate on Bush's next Supreme Court (search) pick — who will have the power to swing the court to the right.
But Schumer said that if the White House sends up previously filibustered judicial nominees or extreme ideologues, Democrats would fight to the finish.
He singled out federal appellate judges Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen, and Hispanic lawyer Miguel Estrada as nominees Democrats would fight. All three were filibustered by Democrats. Estrada dropped his nomination, while Brown and Owen were confirmed after centrist senators struck a deal earlier this year.
Even Democrats who support Roberts say they will fight any nominee they considered to be an ideological activists.
"My intention to vote for Judge Roberts tomorrow should in no way be construed as a weather vane for how I might vote on the next nominee," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. "In the past I have not hesitated to vote against several of the president's nominees to the Courts of Appeal when they carried the ideological and activist baggage that I believe would be disruptive to our society."
Republicans called for Democrats to stay away from making decisions based on partisanship.
"I'm hopeful through the debate on this nominee, and the next Supreme Court nomination, we can avoid the destructive partisanship that approached the brink of absolutism in ideology," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
Roberts will be confirmed as the 17th chief justice on Thursday with support from almost three-fourths of the 100-member Senate, and Bush is expected to name his next nominee to the Supreme Court soon thereafter.
Roberts has gone through the Senate relatively unscathed from the day President Bush tapped him as the nation's 109th Supreme Court justice.
"I'm not sure we will ever have the privilege of voting on a nominee who is more intelligent than John Roberts," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. "His integrity is beyond reproach as well. There's been no hint of any scandal."
Despite complaining about the White House's decision to withhold his documents from Roberts' time as deputy solicitor general and Roberts' refusal to fully answer their questions during his confirmation hearing, the Senate's Democratic leadership decided not to try to delay his confirmation or attempt a filibuster (search).
The Democratic caucus is split on how to vote on Roberts, with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa joining the ranks of the Roberts opponents on Wednesday. "I am unable to conclude that a Roberts court would guarantee the rights of the powerless," Harkin said.
But Democrats who plan to vote for Roberts say his character makes them hope that he will be fair chief justice.
"He is a person of outstanding ability and strong character who possesses in my view a deep commitment to the law and the principle of equal justice for all," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
Senators are expecting a more partisan fight over Bush's replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search). She often has been a swing vote, a majority maker whose replacement could signal a shift on the court on many contentious issues including abortion and affirmative action.
Bush has promised to nominate justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, two of the court's most conservative members. Replacing O'Connor, who was considered a moderate, with a hard-right conservative would move the court further to the right.
Republicans are calling on Democrats to treat the next nominee just as Roberts was treated.
"It seems to me that on this particular nomination we conducted ourselves well, and hopefully we can do that again," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate's No. 2 Republican.