Senate Democrats Divided on Roberts Nomination

The Senate is expected to confirm Supreme Court nominee John Roberts as U.S. chief justice Thursday. Democrats — especially those who are thinking about running for president in 2008 — must weigh the political ramifications of their votes.

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Today, the US Senate is expected to confirm John Roberts to be the next chief justice of the United States. No Republican has broken with the president to oppose Roberts. Democrats are divided. For many, deciding how to vote on Roberts involved complicated political considerations. Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

It's not clear exactly how many Democrats will vote against John Roberts today, but with the exception of the vote on Clarence Thomas in 1991, there will be more `no' votes for Roberts than for any other Supreme Court nominee in almost two decades. Ruth Bader Ginsburg received only three `no' votes, for instance, and not a single senator voted against Antonin Scalia. That shift, says political analyst Stu Rothenberg, says a lot about the new politics of confirmation battles.

Mr. STU ROTHENBERG (Political Analyst): The Clinton presidency radicalized Republicans, if that's a fair term, and the election of 2000 and the Bush presidency has radicalized Democrats. And the result is that both parties really want blood. They want a fight, and they're not willing to be deferential, they're not willing to give the president, regardless of the party, a free hand.

LIASSON: But in the case of Roberts, Democrats are also not willing or able to stop the president's nominee. And in that sense, picking John Roberts did exactly what the president's political advisers intended, split the opposition. Democrats like Bill Nelson of Florida and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, both up for re-election next year in states President Bush carried, have announced they will vote for Roberts. Then there are the senators who are planning to run for president in 2008--Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joseph Biden and John Kerry--are voting no. Even Evan Bayh, from the Republican-leaning state of Indiana, is voting no. Only one senator with national ambitions, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, is voting yes.

Senator RUSSELL FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): This has not been an easy decision but I believe it is the correct one. Judge Roberts' impeccable legal credentials, his reputation and record as a fair-minded person and his commitment to modesty and respect for precedent have persuaded me that he will not bring an ideological agenda to the position of chief justice of the United States.

LIASSON: Feingold's vote earned him an immediate rebuke from his party's activist base. Ralph Neas, president of the advocacy group People For the American Way, pointed out that Feingold was the only member of his party on the Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of both John Ashcroft, for attorney general, and John Roberts. Neas says Feingold's vote was a tremendous disappointment and a tremendous mistake. Was that a warning for 2008? David Sirota, another Democratic activist, thinks so.

Mr. DAVID SIROTA (Democratic Activist): If you're a Democratic presidential candidate running in a primary and you voted for Roberts and there's a whole other slew of things that you've supported the Bush administration on, you open yourselves up to being accused of basically being a capitulator.

LIASSON: Russ Feingold is planning a trip to New Hampshire this weekend, a good place for him to find out firsthand just how potential Democratic primary voters feel. And he might hear how they expect him to vote on the president's next nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, a choice that unlike Roberts could change the balance of power on the court. Nan Aron is the president of the advocacy group Alliance for Justice.

Ms. NAN ARON (President, Alliance for Justice): I think the Democrats will be held to a very high standard this time around. There is increased anxiety among the base of the Democratic Party about the Supreme Court, about...

LIASSON: Democrats want their senators to stand up and fight, says Aron, and if they don't...

Ms. ARON: All you have to do is look at the aftermath of the vote on Clarence Thomas. Alan Dixon, in Illinois, for instance, lost his seat in a primary race. Alan Dixon voted for Clarence Thomas and he was punished for that vote. Going into this next nomination, the base is going to ask their senators to make sure that that nominee's not confirmed.

LIASSON: Democrats outside of Washington who are planning to run for president have the luxury of avoiding all of this political pressure. Virginia Governor Mark Warner, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and retired General Wesley Clark, for example, don't have to say how they would vote. But in an indication of just how strongly the Democrats' liberal base feels about the Supreme Court, in New York City, the Republican mayor, Mike Bloomberg, up for re-election this fall, has said he would certainly vote no if he were in the United States Senate.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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