Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's death and the continued impact of Hurricane Katrina unsettled the Senate yesterday, with Democrats calling for a delay in John G. Roberts Jr.'s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and a greater focus on the storm's victims.
As Congress's August recess approached its end, senators and outside groups debated whether to postpone for one week the Roberts hearings, scheduled to start tomorrow. A delay, Democrats said, would allow senators to focus more fully on hurricane relief efforts and to honor Rehnquist, yet still allow time to decide Roberts's confirmation before the court's Oct. 3 opening session.
"Out of respect for the memory of Chief Justice Rehnquist and in fairness to those whose lives continue to be devastated by Katrina, the Senate should not commence a Supreme Court confirmation hearing this Tuesday," said Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "A brief postponement will not disadvantage anyone."
But some Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans urged the panel to stay on schedule.
"Those hearings ought to go forward," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said on "CNN's Late Edition." "I think Bill Rehnquist would be the first to say he wants them to go forward."
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told "Fox News Sunday," "I don't see any reason why we need to slow down. Things operate slowly enough in Washington. We ought to just proceed with all deliberate speed."
President Bush tapped Roberts in July to succeed retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician who treated hurricane victims in Louisiana and Alabama yesterday, hinted last night that he might accept a postponement if Democrats promise to allow a vote on Roberts's confirmation before Oct. 3. Frist "will be talking to the minority to make that clear and to check if they still share that view," said his chief of staff, Eric Ueland.
Privately, strategists from both parties said Republicans would prefer to avoid a delay because Roberts's nomination appears fully on track and they want no unplanned events to upset it. Democrats, they said, support a delay for three reasons: They feel the hurricane's many poor and African American refugees deserve to have Congress suspend its routine for a few days to focus intensely on their plight; civil rights leaders should not have to address two major issues -- the federal response to Katrina's victims and the first Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years -- at the same time; and finally, committee Democrats and outside witnesses would find it politically awkward to criticize Roberts, who clerked for Rehnquist, during or just after the chief justice's memorial services. Rehnquist will lie in repose tomorrow and be buried following funeral services Wednesday.
"We need to catch our breath in every way," Judiciary Committee member Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview yesterday. "I don't think the one week changes the dynamic at all."
Senators from both parties agreed that only an unforeseen bombshell, not a week's delay, could prevent Roberts from winning confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate. "He will be confirmed," Hatch said. "He's one of the best nominees in history."
Some Democrats, meanwhile, continued to urge Frist to postpone a planned vote this week on permanently repealing the estate tax. "In the wake of one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history, it is unfathomable that the Senate has chosen to focus its efforts on more tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy instead of helping our most vulnerable citizens whose lives have been shattered by Hurricane Katrina," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a letter to Frist.