Rehnquist's Death: What to Expect Next
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
This evening, the nation faces two vacancies on the Supreme Court. Eighty-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist died last night after losing his battle with thyroid cancer. The Associated Press reports that Justice Rehnquist's body will lie in repose at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court starting Tuesday. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday.
The chief justice died just as the Senate was preparing to consider the nomination of John Roberts to the court, and the death comes as the Bush administration is struggling to ddeal with Hurricane Katrina. We'll have extensive coverage from the Gulf region, but first we turn to NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA reporting:
ELLIOTT: Walk us through what's got to happen to fill these two vacancies on the court in the days ahead.
GONYEA: Well, first, there's the process of burying Justice Rehnquist and having an appropriate period of time to simply pay him tribute, to honor him for his service and his years on the court. So that's first.
Then there will be the Senate confirmation hearings for the current nominee, John Roberts. Then we get to the process of vetting and selecting a replacement for Rehnquist, both on the court and as chief justice. The decision must also be made whether to elevate a sitting justice to chief justice, or to nominate a new justice who would also serve as chief; all of that is the president's call. And I should add that that process can actually get under way immediately, the start of the selection process. That doesn't necessarily have to wait for the funeral or for the Roberts hearings.
ELLIOTT: It appears the White House and its allies in the Senate want to proceed with the hearings on the Roberts nomination this week. Why is that?
GONYEA: I think the simple answer is they want to keep the process moving so they can get John Roberts in place on the court as a justice. The time line they'd already set up for that was all designed to get him in the job, on the bench, in time for the new session, which is just a month away. Now the president and his allies do think they're in very good shape on this. They think Roberts is on track for easy confirmation. Their concern, though, is that with delays, any delay for any reason, can come surprises. And guess what? They don't want any surprises. They don't want to give opponents more time to do whatever. They think the process is going well, so they want to keep it moving forward. That's it.
ELLIOTT: Don, the president's under growing political pressure now: eroding support for the war in Iraq, high gas prices and now this stinging criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Does this affect his choice to succeed Justice Rehnquist?
GONYEA: It's really hard to say at this point, but there is certainly the potential that falling popularity means less of an ability to push a nominee through. It's absolutely true that the president's poll numbers have been falling, especially on Iraq. In other areas, we don't know yet how he'll be judged on the response to Hurricane Katrina. Early polls show a majority of the people questioned don't blame him specifically for the problems we've all seen out of New Orleans and elsewhere. Again, though, we don't know how that will play out over time.
So all that said, it is possible that he and his advisers might feel, might determine that Mr. Bush doesn't have the kind of political capital it would take to push a very conservative or any kind of controversial nominee through. But I can also tell you that this administration doesn't necessarily do what seems like conventional wisdom. They do like a fight, it's an important pick, it's the kind of thing that can really establish a president's legacy. It's still a Republican Congress, so it's not unreasonable to say that the president has a list and he'll make his decision regardless of what the polls say.
ELLIOTT: NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Thanks, Don.
GONYEA: You're welcome.
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