John G. Roberts Jr. moved a step closer to becoming chief justice of the United States today as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send his nomination to the full Senate with a recommendation for confirmation.
The committee vote was 13 in favor of confirmation and five opposed. All of the votes against confirmation came from Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Joseph Biden (Del.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) , Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (Ill.)
Democrats who voted in the affirmative were Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) , Herb Kohl (Wis.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.)
The Senate is set to begin debate on Roberts Monday, the day the justices actually meet privately for the beginning of the term that starts publicly on Oct. 3. Roberts was nominated on July 19 to be associate justice replacing Sandra Day O'Connor, who is retiring. Following the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Bush renominated him to be chief justice on Sept. 5.
Nothing that happened today changed the overwhelming view that he will be confirmed in the Senate and available for swearing in before Oct. 3. The only remaining question is the margin of victory for Bush's first Supreme Court nominee.
With little doubt about the outcome, the Roberts nomination has become more of a preliminary round to what may be a greater controversy over the president's so-far-unannounced choice to replace O'Connor.
The assumption of Democrats and Republicans alike is that Roberts's votes on the court will be comparable to Rehnquist's, the conservative for whom Roberts clerked as a young man, and will therefore not immediately alter the disposition of cases.
O'Connor's replacement, on the other hand, will be taking over from a centrist "swing" vote on the court and could significantly change its direction in close cases.
Historically, assumptions about how appointees will vote have been wrong as often as they have been right.
The interest in the next nominee was evident today in comments from committee members as they announced their votes.
"The president has chosen well," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) "Mr. President, you have done a good service to this nation by choosing someone of such intellect and character who will serve this nation for a long period of time.
"You have another choice awaiting you. Listen to our Democratic colleagues. Listen to what we have to say. But at the end of the day," Graham said, "I ask you to do one thing for the good of your presidency and all to follow: Fulfill your campaign promise of selecting a strict constructionist, well-qualified person who loves the law more than they love politics."
Leahy took the opportunity to seek greater pre-appointment consultation by Bush with Democrats, complaining that no members of the opposition party were consulted before Bush renominated Roberts to be chief justice following Rehnquist's death.
The statements about Roberts from senators today mirrored their comments during the hearings.
All the "no" voters, and some of the Democrats who voted affirmatively, complained about what they considered Roberts' unwillingness during hearings last week to answer questions forthrightly about where he stood on major legal issues now and where he stood in the 1980s and 1990s, when he wrote numerous memos as a lawyer in the Reagan and a Bush administrations in support of conservative views.
"My voting in favor of Judge Roberts does not endorse his refusal to answer reasonable questions," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), whose vote was uncertain until he announced it.
Feingold, and other Democrats voting for Roberts, said they did so because of his qualifications and because they took him at his word that he was not an ideologue.
"At the end of the day," said Feingold, "I had to ask myself what kind of chief justice" Roberts will be. Everyone he consulted who was familiar with Roberts, he said, "saw him as . . . one of the great legal minds of our time. That carries a great deal of weight with me."