WASHINGTON – A moderate Democratic senator who helped broker a deal over President Bush's judicial nominations said Thursday that Supreme Court nominee John Roberts doesn't seem to be the kind of right-wing candidate they feared the president would select.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (search), one of 14 senators who helped avoid a confrontation over judges earlier this year, said their message to Bush essentially was, "Don't send us an extremist that's going to blow the place up, and first look is that that's exactly what he has not done."
"In other words, he's sent us somebody that's got impressive academic and legal credentials and seems to have a record of personal honor," Lieberman said on the Don Imus radio show, suggesting a smooth confirmation for the 50-year-old federal appeals court judge.
Lieberman, D-Conn., said he thinks Roberts, who became a judge in 2003, is a "decent guy." But he said it was too early to reach further conclusions.
"He's only been on the bench for two years so we don't know a lot about his judicial philosophy and that's where the Judiciary Committee hearings are going to be important," Lieberman said.
Lieberman and others in the "Gang of 14" (search) senators who recently avoided a partisan confrontation over Bush's judicial selections met Thursday to discuss Roberts and whether his nomination might trigger a clause in the agreement allowing Democrats to mount a filibuster.
Entering the meeting, several Democrats in the group said it appeared Roberts will have a smooth confirmation.
"I think the president has made a wise choice," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Asked whether a filibuster was likely, he said: "I think it's fair to say I don't see anything coming out right now."
Added Mark Pryor, D-Ark: "My sense is, so far, so good."
Roberts also was headed to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Judiciary Committee members Thursday, as he continues to reintroduce himself to a Senate that unanimously voted for him in 2003.
Majority Republican senators have been unfailingly admiring of Roberts, 50, since Bush announced the nomination Tuesday night. And even though Democrats are uncertain about his judicial philosophy, not a single Democratic senator so far has called for the conservative jurist's outright rejection. There also has been no public talk of trying to block a yes or no vote
Other Democrats, however, said they weren't about to rubber stamp Bush's choice of a successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"No one is entitled to a free pass to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court," Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday.
Abortion (search) and access to internal government memos loomed as likely flash points as Democrats pointed toward the nationally televised proceedings, likely to begin after Labor Day.
Yet chances of a Democratic filibuster were fading.
"Do I believe this is a filibuster-able nominee? The answer would be no, not at this time," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a Judiciary Committee member and abortion-rights supporter.
Many of the Republicans members of the "Gang of 14" have indicated support for Roberts. "I think that Judge Roberts deserves an up-or-down vote, and I hope that the other members of that group agree with me," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.
Roberts, who didn't say much publicly Wednesday during a five-hour visit to the Capitol, made sure to praise the politicians who will decide the first Supreme Court nomination in 11 years.
"I appreciate and respect the constitutional role of the Senate in the confirmation process," Roberts said after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
While Democratic senators said such things as Roberts was "in the ballpark" of being a nonconfrontational selection, they refused to guarantee a smooth confirmation process.
"The nominee should be as clear and open as he possibly can in answering our questions," Leahy said.
Republicans showed no doubt about the outcome. "We intend to have a respectful process here and confirm you before the first Monday in October," when the court reconvenes, McConnell told Roberts.
The administration was taking no chances, placing former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., at Roberts' elbow to smooth the way to confirmation.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (search), who was at the fulcrum of early speculation as Bush's likely choice, said Thursday he understands Democrats will interrogate Roberts closely on his legal views, but said they shouldn't go too far.
Gonzales, appearing on a television network morning news show, said questions about how someone will approach a case are appropriate. "But to inquire as to how someone is actually going to decide a case, I think, is inappropriate for a nominee to answer," he added.
As Roberts paid courtesy calls on senators Wednesday, a conservative group bought TV ad time in support of his nomination. Abortion rights groups, meanwhile, staged protests against the nominee at the Supreme Court and the Capitol.
Progress for America, a conservative organization with ties to the administration, unveiled the opening salvo in an ad campaign designed to ensure confirmation. It stressed Roberts' resume of academic and professional accomplishments and public service — first in his class at Harvard Law School, confirmed by the Senate to his current position and lawyer in two presidential administrations.
Like Leahy, several Democratic senators said they intended to question Roberts closely about whether he would separate his personal views from his judicial rulings.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada hinted at another potential area of conflict when he publicly prodded Roberts to provide written materials requested by senators.
Democrats have blocked confirmation votes on two of Bush's high-profile nominees in recent years in disputes over access to documents.