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Democrats split on Roberts
Senate Judiciary Committee voting Thursday
submitted by Travis
September 22, 2005 | 11:15 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Judiciary Committee Democrats divided on Thursday over endorsing John Roberts to be the Supreme Court's next chief justice as his nomination made its way to the full Senate for confirmation.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee's only woman, announced Thursday she would oppose Roberts, while Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin, decided to support making the conservative judge the nation's 17th chief justice.

Feinstein told a packed Judiciary Committee hearing room that her vote was decided after Roberts refused to fully answer questions from her and other Democrats in his confirmation hearing last week.

"I knew as little about what Judge Roberts really thought about issues after the hearings as I did before the hearing. This makes it very hard for me," said Feinstein, an abortion rights supporter.

"I cannot in good conscious cast a 'yea' vote," she said. "I will cast a 'no' vote."

The committee was to make an official decision later in the afternoon, sending the nomination to the full Senate.

Panel vote assured

A vote in Roberts' favor was assured, with the panel's majority of 10 Republicans united behind him.

The only question was which way some of the panel's eight Democrats would go.

By late morning Thursday, the tally was two Democrats for Roberts and two against, with others yet to speak their mind.

The first of the group to come out against Roberts was liberal stalwart Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who announced on Wednesday that he would vote against Roberts in committee and on the Senate floor when the final vote is called late next week.

Senate Democrats, however, are split on whether Roberts will make a suitable successor to the late William H. Rehnquist and over whether they can or should mount even symbolic opposition.

Leahy backs Roberts

The Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, decided Wednesday to vote to confirm Roberts.

"I take him at his word that he will steer the court to serve as an appropriate check on potential abuses of presidential power," Leahy told the committee and former Sen. Fred Thompson -- Roberts' escort through the confirmation process -- who watched from the crowd.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who called Leahy "my courageous colleague" Thursday morning, said Roberts has the ability to end the Supreme Court's recent 5-4 splits on issues important to Americans.

"I think he has a real sense for building consensus," said Specter, who is an abortion rights moderate.

Leahy and Kohl are not the only Democrats supporting Roberts.

Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana have announced their support for Roberts. Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have indicated they are leaning toward voting for the nominee. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota is viewed as a possible vote for him, as well.

Roberts is "very well credentialed," Landrieu said Wednesday.

Full Senate votes next week

After the committee's action, Roberts' nomination goes to the full Senate for a final vote next week. The White House wants Roberts to be in place as the nation's 17th chief justice when the Supreme Court begins its new term on October 3.

Leahy was one of four senators who met with President Bush on Wednesday to discuss the second opening on the high court, a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The stakes become greater with the next nominee. The conservative Roberts would replace Rehnquist, a reliably conservative vote on the court.

O'Connor has been one of the court's swing voters on affirmative action, abortion, campaign finance, discrimination and death penalty cases. Replacing her could give the president a chance to swing the court to the right on many issues.

Democratic support for Roberts has upset some liberal interest groups. Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, on Wednesday called Leahy's decision "inexplicable and deeply disappointing."

Senate Democrats opposing Roberts so far include Democratic leader Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer of California, John Kerry of Massachusetts and New Jersey Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg.

O'Connor replacement

Specter, Leahy, Reid and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, met with Bush at the White House over breakfast Wednesday to discuss O'Connor's replacement. While the senators offered some names, the president did not share his own opinions.

One potential nominee discussed was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a longtime favorite of the president who would become the first Hispanic named to the court.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is opposing Roberts.

Reid and Leahy also suggested other Hispanic candidates, including Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Ed Prado of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, officials said. These officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the confidential nature of the meeting.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was considering a diverse list.

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