President Bush, accelerating his search for a new Supreme Court justice, appears to have narrowed his list of candidates to no more than a few finalists and could announce his decision in the next few days, Republican strategists informed about White House plans said yesterday.
Advisers to Bush had anticipated an announcement closer to the end of the month, but the White House signaled allies over the weekend to be prepared for a nomination this week, according to the strategists, who asked not to be named because the process remains officially confidential. "We've been told to be ready," one strategist said.
The faster pace came after a surprise statement Thursday night by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who is 80 and battling thyroid cancer, in which he dispelled intense speculation that he intends to retire soon. In disclosing his intentions, Rehnquist clarified the choice facing the president, who can move forward knowing that he has only one seat to fill -- that of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Laying the groundwork for his nomination, Bush used his weekly radio address Saturday to press the Senate for an expeditious confirmation process. Bush has said he wants to seat the new justice by the time the court begins its next term Oct. 3, although O'Connor agreed in her retirement letter to stay on until her successor is confirmed. In delaying his decision so far, Bush has managed to limit the time before Oct. 3 when his nominee would be vulnerable to attacks from opponents.
As Bush interviews his finalist or finalists, the White House has kept secret his paring-down process. Some advisers said they increasingly believe the president may pick a woman to replace O'Connor, the nation's first female justice, just as first lady Laura Bush publicly urged him to do last week. "There's a lot more focus on a woman," one GOP strategist said.
Bush also has considered several African Americans and Hispanics, although allies believe he is now leaning against appointing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a friend.
As he has since O'Connor made her announcement July 1, Bush continued to receive unsolicited advice yesterday about whom he should pick. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who will preside over confirmation hearings, suggested that Bush consider a politician, pointing back to the era of Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former California governor who forged the famed desegregation decision of 1954.
"When you look back at the court which handed down Brown v. Board of Education unanimously, there was an ex-governor, there were three ex-senators, two attorneys general, a solicitor general, a professor and somebody from the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission]," Specter said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think it would be useful to have somebody with more breadth of experience."
Appearing on the same program, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), one of the "Gang of 14" senators who reached a compromise in May defusing a dispute over filibusters against lower-court appointments, urged Bush to pick someone both parties could get behind.
"This country is really divided right now on the war," she said. "The president, as the leader, should, I think, have an overwhelming feeling to appoint someone that the Senate can agree on to keep the country together, fighting these battles."