WASHINGTON – Within minutes of the announcement that President Bush had selected a Supreme Court nominee, the Republican-controlled Senate began preparing for a late summer confirmation struggle.
Confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee are expected to begin in late August or early September, Republicans said, with an eye toward getting Bush's nominee confirmed before the Supreme Court opens its fall term Oct. 3.
"It's important that we have a nominee confirmed by then," said Sen. Norm Coleman (search), R-Minn. "We'll have time to do that."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., met with the White House officials Monday. In preparation for the hearings, the committee will conduct its own vetting of the nominee while lawmakers are on a monthlong August recess. Specter, who is fighting Hodgkin's disease (search), is scheduled for his final chemotherapy session this Friday.
The panel's 10 Republicans and eight Democrats are expecting courtesy visits from the nominee before the end of next week when they scatter for vacation. The nominee also is likely to meet quickly with Senate leaders of both parties.
Committee aides have said they need three to six weeks to prepare for the confirmation hearings, depending on how much of a paper trail the nominee has. That means the first hearing would be in late August at the earliest and possibly not until after Labor Day.
Specter and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's senior Democrat, will negotiate how many witnesses will be allowed to speak for and against the nominee, but the hearings are not likely to last more than a week.
The committee will then vote on making a positive, negative or no recommendation to the full Senate. Whatever the recommendation, the full Senate traditionally gives the nomination a vote.
However, a controversial nominee could force a showdown over the use of a filibuster to block a confirmation vote. A nomination needs only a simple majority — 51 votes if all 100 senators vote — but breaking a filibuster requires 60 votes.
Senate Democrats have blocked six of Bush's lower court nominees through filibusters. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has threatened to force a vote on prohibiting use of the parliamentary device on Supreme Court and federal appeals court nominations if Democrats try it again.
A showdown over judicial filibusters in May was averted when 14 senators — seven Republicans and seven Democrats — signed a pact not to participate in them except in extraordinary circumstances. The group also agreed to oppose attempts by GOP leaders to change filibuster procedures.