New Justices Could Reverse

Partial-Birth Abortion Ruling

The Bush administration is asking the Supreme Court to reinstate a national ban on a type of late-term abortion, a case that could thrust the president's first court picks into an early tie-breaking role on a divisive and emotional issue.

The appeal follows a two-year legal fight over the law and highlights the power that Bush's nominees will have. Just a few months ago, there would have been five votes to strike down the law, which bars what critics call partial-birth abortion.

The outcome is now uncertain, with moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retiring and her replacement still unnamed.

"This no longer puts the abortion issue in the abstract with the Supreme Court. This is as live a controversy as you can get," Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said yesterday.

President Bush had supported the 2003 law banning what he termed an "abhorrent practice." President Bill Clinton twice vetoed similar bills, arguing that they lacked an exception to protect the health of the mother, something the Supreme Court has said is required in abortion laws.

The law Bush signed was challenged before it took effect and has never been enforced. Challengers won rulings in New York, California and Nebraska that the law was unconstitutional because of the lack of a health exception.

Bush Hints That Court Pick

May Be a Minority or Woman

John G. Roberts Jr. cruised yesterday toward easy confirmation as chief justice while President Bush hinted that his next pick to the Supreme Court could be a minority or a woman.

"Diversity is one of the strengths of the country," Bush said.

Roberts, 50, a federal appellate judge and the president's first pick for the Supreme Court, is assured of getting an overwhelming confirmation vote by the Senate later this week, making him the nation's 17th chief justice.

Roberts is "the brightest of the bright," declared Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), as the Senate began several days of debate.

Two-thirds of the 100 senators -- both Republicans and Democrats -- already had promised to support Roberts as the successor to the late William H. Rehnquist before the debate began.

Acting FDA Commissioner to

Keep Cancer Institute Post

Andrew von Eschenbach, named last Friday to run the Food and Drug Administration as acting commissioner, intends to keep his current job as director of the National Cancer Institute, federal officials said yesterday. Von Eschenbach has not said whether he is interested in taking on the FDA job as a permanent commissioner.

President Bush named von Eschenbach as acting commissioner after the sudden and unexplained resignation of Lester M. Crawford, who had been confirmed to the position by the Senate two months before.

The FDA has been without a permanent commissioner for well over half of the Bush administration.

-- Compiled from reports by staff writer Marc Kaufman and news services