Democrats Say Nominee Will Be Hard to Defeat

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By Peter Baker and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 21, 2005

The White House and its allies opened their campaign to confirm Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court with a mix of soft-sell persuasion and hard-pitch pressure yesterday as Senate Democrats plotted strategy for responding to a nomination they conceded could be hard to defeat.

After meeting President Bush for coffee at the White House in the morning, Roberts headed to Capitol Hill for the ritual of convivial courtesy calls not seen in 11 years, while Republican operatives began television advertising to push the Senate to approve the appellate judge. Bush called for a "fair and civil process" that would put Roberts on the bench by the time the court reconvenes Oct. 3.

An array of interest groups on the left began mobilizing opposition to Roberts, but reticent Senate Democrats demonstrated little eagerness for an all-out war against him. Some Democratic senators laid the groundwork for a struggle focused on prying loose documents related to Roberts's career in government and using any resistance by the administration against him. Yet as the day progressed, Democrats seemed increasingly resigned to the notion that they cannot stop his appointment.

The key barometer came from members of the Gang of 14 senators who forged a bipartisan accord in May to avoid a showdown over lower-court appointments. Two Republican members of the group, John McCain (Ariz.) and John W. Warner (Va.), said the Roberts selection would not trigger the "extraordinary circumstances" clause of the agreement that would justify a Democratic filibuster.

Under Senate rules, a filibuster would be the only procedural way the minority party could stop the nomination. By the end of the day, though, Democrats held out little prospect of a filibuster.

"Everybody ought to cool their jets on this and let the process work," said Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a Democratic member of the group. "Going in, it looks good" for Roberts, he said.

Bush introduced his nominee in a prime-time White House ceremony Tuesday night, choosing a practiced appellate lawyer to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts, who served in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and earned a reputation as one of the most successful lawyers in the Supreme Court bar, was appointed by the current president to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2003.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said yesterday that he expects hearings on Roberts's nomination in early September after the August recess, although he added that they could be moved up to late August if needed. He promised "extensive hearings" and predicted that Roberts "will have the answers" to senators' questions.

White House officials and Republican strategists exuded confidence, saying they had found the most confirmable conservative to put forward. "I think he's ultimately going to sail through," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel to the American Center for Law and Justice, who has been advising the White House on court strategy.

"There'll be a battle because all Supreme Court nominations are battles, but this is not a holy war," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a Reagan White House chief of staff who steered the previous two Republican nominations onto the court for Bush's father. "I don't think the passion from the far left will be felt by all these Democratic senators."

Democrats prepared for a strategy that recently has served them well on contentious nominations: focusing on a nominee's refusal to answer questions or provide documents rather than just the person's political beliefs.

Senate Democrats have bottled up John R. Bolton's nomination to be U.N. ambassador by insisting on State Department documents that the administration refuses to yield. And they successfully filibustered Miguel Estrada's court nomination in Bush's first term by emphasizing his refusal to answer questions about judicial philosophy.


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Graphic
A Long Process
On average, recent Supreme Court nominees have waited six weeks for their confirmation hearings to begin in the Senate Judiciary Committee and 10 weeks for the full Senate to confirm them.
A Long Process
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