President Bush said yesterday that he plans to interview finalists for the Supreme Court to "get this process moving" so that the Senate can confirm the next justice by the beginning of the new term in October, but gave little clue about whom he is considering.
Bush depicted his selection process as "thorough and deliberate," and insisted that he is listening to the many senators he and his staff have consulted. But he strongly reaffirmed that he will make the choice, not the senators who have weighed in with suggestions.
At a news conference with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Bush said he will meet some potential nominees after studying their records.
"I will sit down with some and talk to them face to face, those who I have not known already," he said. "You know, we've got some people that [are] perhaps in contention that I've already spent time with, that I know. . . . And so I don't need to interview those."
His formulation suggested that some finalists would include close acquaintances such as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales or U.S. Appeals Court Judge Priscilla R. Owen, fellow Texans who owe their current jobs to Bush and would not need to be interviewed further. He is also considering several other judges he does not know. The White House declined to discuss individual candidates or Bush's schedule of interviews.
But Republican strategists with close ties to the White House said that Bush will conduct interviews today and that he could announce his decision this week. That way, the advisers said, the nominee could make courtesy calls on key senators next week before they leave for the August recess. Bush has tapped former senator Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) to escort the nominee around Capitol Hill.
In recent days, Bush has been focusing on female candidates in search of a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. The leading female contenders, according to GOP strategists, are Judges Edith Hollan Jones, Edith Brown Clement and Owen, all of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit; Janice Rogers Brown of the D.C. Circuit; and Karen Williams of the 4th Circuit.
Jones, admired by many conservatives as a "strict constructionist" in interpreting the Constitution, was the runner-up to David H. Souter when President George H.W. Bush made his first court appointment in 1990. She has expressed strong opposition to Roe v. Wade, the decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.
Owen and Brown were just confirmed to the appellate bench, after long Democratic delays, as part of a May deal to end a partisan showdown over judicial filibusters. If Bush picks either of them, strategists said, the White House will argue that the Senate could hardly reject the nomination months after approving the same person for a lower-court post. But such a move would be seen as provocative by Democrats who reluctantly dropped their filibuster against those two.
Some Republican strategists in touch with the White House increasingly believe Bush will pick a woman, particularly since first lady Laura Bush said last week that she favors replacing O'Connor with another woman. But several male candidates are still mentioned, including former deputy attorney general Larry D. Thompson and Judges John G. Roberts of the D.C. Circuit and J. Michael Luttig of the 4th Circuit.
At his news conference, Bush noted that he has already gotten plenty of advice from senators. "It turns out many of the senators have got strong opinions one way or the other. And, of course, we're listening to them," he said. But he added: "I, of course, am the person that picks the nominee and they get to decide whether or not the nominee gets confirmed. That's the way it has worked in the past. That's the way it's going to work in this administration."
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement saying that the president "is absolutely correct," but called on him to pick someone "who will unite America."
"He must make a choice: he can either pick a nominee to appease his right-wing base, or he can choose someone who will respect the rights and freedoms of all Americans," Reid said.
The cacophony of advice and opinions that has filled the void in the 17 days since O'Connor's announcement is wearing on some Republicans. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) said that Bush has done enough consulting and that Democrats have no cause to complain. "There's going to be a lot of senators who say their advice is not followed," but it's not their nomination, he said.
"All of the chattering before the president's even made a decision's not constructive, really," said Helgi Walker, a former associate White House counsel under Bush.
That has not stopped interest groups on either side. The Alliance for Justice, a liberal group that has opposed Bush's lower-court appointments, launched a Supreme Court "podcast" with audio files to download its position on the coming nomination.
On the other side, the Judicial Confirmation Network, which supports Bush nominees, released its second Internet ad criticizing recent Supreme Court rulings in making the case for changing the court's direction.