Roberts Unlikely To Face Big Fight

Supreme Court nominee Judge John Roberts, right, meets with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Aides to Senate Democrats say politicizing Roberts's Supreme Court nomination would be feeding into the Bush administration's hand.
Supreme Court nominee Judge John Roberts, right, meets with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Aides to Senate Democrats say politicizing Roberts's Supreme Court nomination would be feeding into the Bush administration's hand. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Mike Allen and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Democrats have decided that unless there is an unexpected development in the weeks ahead, they will not launch a major fight to block the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr., according to legislators, Senate aides and party strategists.

In a series of interviews in recent days, more than a dozen Democratic senators and aides who are intimately involved in deliberations about strategy said that they see no evidence that most Democratic senators are prepared to expend political capital in what is widely seen as a futile effort to derail the nomination.

Although they expect to subject President Bush's nominee to tough questioning at confirmation hearings next month, members of the minority party said they do not plan to marshal any concerted campaign against Roberts because they have concluded that he is likely to get at least 70 votes -- enough to overrule parliamentary tactics such as a filibuster that could block the nominee.

"No one's planning all-out warfare," said a Senate Democratic aide closely involved in caucus strategy on Roberts. For now, the aide said, Democratic strategy is to make it clear Roberts is subject to fair scrutiny while avoiding a pointless conflagration that could backfire on the party. "We're going to come out of this looking dignified and will show we took the constitutional process seriously," the aide said.

"This was a smart political choice from the White House," said one prominent Democratic lawmaker, who like several others interviewed for this article requested anonymity because they were departing from the Democrats' public position. "I don't think people see a close vote here."

In a reflection of the mildness of the Democrats' message, a set of party talking points circulated last week to Senate offices included no specific criticism of the nominee but simply called for "an honest look at John Roberts's record" -- which they say is made harder by the Bush administration's refusal to release some documents from the nominee's work as a government lawyer in GOP administrations.

"A thorough review of Roberts's record is required to guarantee that Judge Roberts will support the rights and freedoms of all Americans if he is confirmed," the memo says. "The Bush Administration must stop playing games over the release of documents; a lifetime appointment to the highest court is too important."

The Democrats' plan is not without risk. Outside strategists working with the White House said that if an overwhelming majority of Democrats vote for Roberts, Republicans will be able to argue in future confirmation fights that the opposition has taken ideology off the table as a relevant factor. In addition, many party activists outside Washington are eager for senators to show more backbone against President Bush.

The Democrats' decision to hold their fire -- less a formal strategy than an emerging consensus -- has allowed conservatives to husband their resources for future battles. Progress for America, a political group working closely with the White House, had planned to spend $18 million to promote the confirmation of Roberts but now may spend less than half that, according to Republican aides.

Democrats said that instead of mounting a headlong assault on Roberts, they plan to use the hearings and the surrounding attention by the news media to remind voters of their party's values, including the protection of rights for individual Americans. The plan calls for emphasizing rights beyond abortion in an effort to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate.

A 27-page document circulating among Republicans and conservatives compiles senators' public statements about Roberts to come up with what White House allies are calling their unofficial "whip count": 56 senators are positively inclined to support Roberts, with 44 of those solid and 12 senators leaning toward Roberts. That leaves 44 unknowns. But eight of those are Republicans who have made no public statement, and nine of them are Democrats who have made positive comments about Roberts's demeanor, intellect or integrity. So the pool of potential outright opponents could be as few as 27 senators, according to the Republican analysis.

Without question, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will subject Roberts to intense grilling -- and the discovery of new and damaging information about Roberts could dramatically change the strategy. But for now, Democratic lawmakers say they are less interested in opposing Roberts than in serving notice to Bush that they would react very differently if a more overtly conservative choice were made for a future Supreme Court vacancy.

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