Senate Panel Votes 13-5 to Endorse Roberts

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted 13-5 to recommend confirmation of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. The senators voted largely along partisan lines, with all Republicans and three Democrats endorsing Roberts as the next Supreme Court Chief Justice.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

In Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee today voted to recommend confirmation of John Roberts as the next chief justice of the US. And joining me from Capitol Hill is NPR's David Welna.

David, tell us how the vote in that committee broke down.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Noah, the vote was 13 committee members recommending Roberts' confirmation by the full Senate and five panel members voting not to recommend him. Everyone of the 10 Republicans on the committee, as expected, voted for Roberts. What had been unexpected until he announced his attention to do so yesterday was the committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick Leahy, also voted for Roberts, and two other Democrats, Russell Feingold and Herb Kohl, both from Wisconsin, joined Leahy in voting Roberts out favorably. All three of them also expressed quite a few reservations about voting yes. And you know, the fact that the remaining five Democrats on the panel decided to vote against Roberts shows pretty deep misgivings about a nominee who has a stellar resume but who, at least in the eyes of some, avoided answering a lot of questions and failed to adequately distance himself, in their view, from many things that they found offensive in memos and letters that he'd written more than two decades ago.

ADAMS: But still you've got the top Democrat on the committee, Patrick Leahy, voting for him. How much influence will that have as the process goes on?

WELNA: Well, I think that Leahy's voting in favor of Roberts gives a certain amount of political cover to other Democrats who are also inclined to vote for him when the full Senate takes up his nomination next week. And I'd expect a lot of Democrats from states that voted to re-elect President Bush last fall to vote for his chief justice nominee, especially those who face re-election battles next year. But I'd also expect other Democrats to follow the lead of Minority Leader Harry Reid, who's already announced his intention to oppose Roberts next week. But don't expect to see any attempts by Democrats to filibuster a vote on Roberts because Reid says he won't back such measures, possibly because he wouldn't have the votes even if he did want to.

ADAMS: What is the procedure, David, when it goes to the full Senate?

WELNA: It's going to be debated on the floor; it's not clear how long that's going to take. It's a pretty open-ended process, but the goal of Majority Leader Bill Frist is to have a vote a week from today, next Thursday, and that would be so that Roberts could be installed as chief justice of the United States when the Supreme Court begins its next term on October 3rd.

ADAMS: Now let's back up a little bit to the other seat--the second open seat, Sandra Day O'Connor's seat, the one that came vacant first. The White House has not yet put forward a name? Is there a delay, is it thought?

WELNA: I don't think there's a delay. I think there's a division of opinions about how fast the White House should move on this next nomination. While the Roberts nomination proved to be actually a lot less contentious than many people had expected it to be, part of that was I think because in the end Roberts ended up replacing William Rehnquist on the court, a fellow conservative, as chief justice rather than Sandra Day O'Connor, who's been sort of a swing vote on the court. And I think that especially Democrats are looking at this vacant seat of O'Connor as much more crucial. In a sense, Roberts doesn't really change the political balance of the court, being a conservative, but they would like to have somebody nominated who's much closer to Sandra Day O'Connor in her political views. And the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, has asked the president to wait on this until next June, but it looks like the president is likely to move forward on this and possibly do so right after Roberts is confirmed by the full Senate, as expected.

ADAMS: NPR's David Welna from Capitol Hill. Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Noah.

ADAMS: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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