John G. Roberts Jr. (search) began his confirmation campaign Wednesday to nail down Republican Senate support and overcome Democrats' fears that he would push the nation's highest court far to the right on abortion and other polarizing issues.
While Republicans are praising President Bush's Supreme Court (search) nominee, most Democrats say they are "keeping their powder dry" until Roberts' background is thoroughly investigated.
"He has the qualities our country expects in a judge ... he has a profound respect for the rule of law ... I urge the Senate to rise to the occasion, provide a fair and civil process and have Judge Roberts in place before the next court session on October 3," Bush said from the Port of Baltimore, Md.
Roberts, a former clerk to Justice William H. Rehnquist (search), met with Senate leaders Wednesday and made courtesy calls on Capitol Hill, visiting with all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. His hearings could be in late August or early September.
The Senate could feasibly schedule a confirmation vote before the court reconvenes on Oct. 3. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., pledged to meet that goal.
During Roberts' meeting with the Senate leaders, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republican, predicted a "respectful process."
Roberts also was meeting with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid.
"Senators must be convinced that the nominee will respect constitutional principles and protect the constitutional rights of all Americans ... Justice O'Connor should only be replaced by someone who, like her, is firmly in the constitutional mainstream," the Nevada senator said on the Senate floor. "I have called on the president to choose a nominee who can unite the country, not divide it. It remains to be seen whether John Roberts fits that description."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised full and fair confirmation hearings.
"The emphasis is on detailed inquiry into Judge Roberts' ... ideas on jurisprudence and we'll be dealing with that," Specter said Wednesday, adding that the panel will go into Roberts' legal positions "in detail" but will not ask the judge how he would rule as a Supreme Court justice.
When asked how he would respond if Democrats request memos Roberts worked on while serving in the solicitor general's office, Specter said he will wait and see how things play out.
"There's long been a concern with disclosing lawyers' work products because it has a chilling effect on other lawyers in the same process ... if they're reviewed one day in the political context, it inhibits the freedom," Specter said.
Close associates and friends of Roberts had no doubt that the nominee is ready for anything.
"I don't know anybody more qualified to respond to questions from the senators than John is … they're not going to ask him questions he has not anticipated," Roberts' friend and Florida attorney Dean Colson told FOX News. "I think Roberts is where most of America is."
What About The 'F' Word?
Bush told reporters after breakfast with Roberts on Wednesday that he has spoken with senators about the importance of Roberts getting "a fair hearing, a timely hearing and a hearing that will bring great credit to our nation and the United States Senate."
"We will provide all the support that's necessary for the senators to be able to make up their minds," Bush added.
So far, little mention has been made of the dreaded "F" word: filibuster.
"We will work toward making this smooth ... but we also both realize we have a duty to all Americans ... to make sure if they're going to have a new member of the Supreme Court ... [he] will be someone who will represent all Americans and respect the rights of all Americans," Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told FOX News.
Added Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.: "I don't think [there will be a filibuster] with John Roberts. … While the Supreme Court is a little bit different than the court of appeals, certainly not enough to bring a filibuster. ... I cannot imagine that John Roberts will be filibustered."
Members of the "Gang of 14" senators who averted a Senate showdown on a "nuclear option" to prevent filibusters said the group plans to meet Thursday. Sen.John McCain (search) , R-Ariz., one member of the gang, said he thinks Roberts ought to get a vote in the Senate.
"I only speak for myself, but having been in on those negotiations about extraordinary circumstances for hundreds of hours, I think that Judge Roberts deserves an up-or-down vote, and I hope that the other members of that group agree with me," McCain said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the new justice will be critical to the balance of the court, especially when it rules on cases involving congressional authority, a woman's right to privacy and environmental protections.
"I will keep my powder dry until the due diligence is completed," Feinstein said.
Added Sen. John Corzine, D-N.J.: "I withhold personal judgment because I want to see how he responds to these questions."
Sen. Edward Kennedy said several times Wednesday that he would not prejudge the nominee nor would he decide whether to support or oppose Roberts based on any single issue.
But people need to know "whether Judge Roberts respects the core value of the Constitution" and falls within the mainstream, as O'Connor did, said the senior senator from Massachusetts. "That is the important issue."
Others, however, aren't being so congenial.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who last week laid out a list of questions that a Supreme Court nominee should answer, said that Roberts has an obligation to answer those questions.
"I hope Judge Roberts, understanding how important this nomination is — particularly when replacing a swing vote on the court — will decide to answer questions about his views," Schumer said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Bush missed a chance to choose a candidate who could bring the country together.
"The president had an opportunity to unite the country with his Supreme Court nomination, to nominate an individual in the image of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor," said Durbin, who was one of three committee Democrats who voted against Roberts in 2003, along with Schumer and Kennedy. "Instead, by putting forward John Roberts' name, President Bush has chosen a more controversial nominee and guaranteed a more controversial confirmation process," he said.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who was serving as a shepherd for Roberts through the Senate nomination process, told FOX News on Wednesday that he doesn't see any specific area where Roberts would be vulnerable.
"Clearly, there are going to be issues that are raised. He's written a lot of opinions. He's written a lot of briefs, and the cases that he's argued, and [Democrats] will try to tie him to some unpopular cases … all we would ask is that senators apply the same standards to Judge Roberts as they've applied to others," Thompson said.
Thompson, a Republican, a former assistant U.S. attorney and currently an actor, said senators should not expect the nominee to answer each and every question; some justices before him also refused to answer some questions.
"They know they're going to run into a situation where a judge cannot ethically talk about cases that might come before him again, but there's an awful lot they can talk about. That should not be a reason for any problem," Thompson added.
No Cakewalk But No Bloodbath, Either
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed that Roberts won't have that bloody a battle ahead of him in the confirmation process.
"I don't think it's going to be an absolute cakewalk — the Democrats are going to have to listen a little bit to their interest groups," said C. Boyden Gray, a FOX News Supreme Court analyst and former White House counsel for President George H.W. Bush. "But I think he's going to be confirmed by a comfortable majority … I can't imagine having that much difficulty."
"I think it's going to be calm … he's not a very confrontational man," Corzine told FOX News on Wednesday. "I do think there will be a very real discussion on judicial philosophy, the role of Congress and its ability to make laws and whether they will be overturned by the courts … sort of two sides to judicial activism … people want a jurist that pulls people together … Judge Roberts could be that person."
Kyl, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said, "The assumption is, we will conduct this in a fair and dignified way … I'm sure my colleagues will conduct themselves in that manner."
Although a $50 million anti-Roberts campaign is already in full-swing, Corzine said most senators can distinguish between fact and fiction. Specter has urged such groups to stay out of the Senate's business.
"There are special interests on the fringes who of course will try to make issues out of almost anything … they oppose the president … but I think senators can sort through that," said Kyl.
And because all of the FBI background checks have been done, as has a record analysis by the American Bar Association, Kyl said the process should be a swift one.
Added former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese: "I think he has such a good record. He's argued before the Supreme Court 39 times, he's respected by lawyers on both sides of the aisle. I don't think there's any reason for Democrats to hold him up."
David Boies, former legal counsel for Al Gore, said based on Roberts' prior conduct and writing, it should be near smooth sailing, but senators will want to know: "Is he somebody who is a judicial activist or not? I think the answer to that is probably going to be 'no.'"
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the Gang of 14, said that simply being conservative is "no longer an extraordinary circumstance" as defined by the filibuster agreement and the president is in a good position to send a conservative judge to the Senate for confirmation.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., who is not a member of the Gang of 14, told FOX News that she has some concerns about Roberts involving issues such as veterans' rights, environmental rights and privacy, including a woman's right to choose.
Boxer countered that when issues such as contraception and abortion come before the Supreme Court, "I believe it's an extraordinary circumstance when these rights disappear."
FOX News' Julie Asher and Jim Mills contributed to this report.