WASHINGTON—With his choice for chief justice confirmed, President Bush now gets to fill a second Supreme Court vacancy and with it shift the court to the right for years to come.
Bush could announce his selection to replace Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as early as Friday. Aides said he'd reviewed a diverse list of potential picks but wanted to wait for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to be confirmed and sworn in Thursday before settling on his next nominee.
White House aides and allies said Bush looked at Roberts as a model for his next choice, though the new nominee could be a woman or a minority. They hoped that the nominee, like Roberts, would win widespread respect quickly for an impressive legal mind and resume, while not carrying a confrontational record or combative style that would feed dissent.
Any conservative choice is likely to shift the court to the right. The moderate O'Connor was a swing vote on such issues as abortion rights. Still, Bush hopes to avoid a knockdown fight in the Senate in which Democrats would use their filibuster power to block a vote, and Republicans then would rewrite longstanding Senate rules to strip the minority of that power.
Winning Senate confirmation without partisan warfare is probably even more important to Bush now than it was when he nominated Roberts in mid-July, because the president is politically weaker now.
Meantime, inside his White House, aides are bracing for possible indictments from a federal prosecutor intent on finding out whether a Bush aide illegally leaked the name of a CIA officer to the press.
He also has a weaker hand in Congress. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, had to step down this week as House majority leader until a felony charge against him is resolved. And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., faces a preliminary inquiry into his sale of stock in a family company shortly before its price plummeted.
All that makes it less likely that Bush will select someone in the mold of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, a brilliant and combative conservative ideologue. While it would be enormously popular with Bush's conservative base, a Scalia-like nominee could alienate those in the political middle.
The successful Roberts nomination showed the president he could appeal to most conservatives, many moderates and even a good share of Democrats—just the sort of win he could use right now.
"People on either extreme would not be thrilled. But the vast majority would be extremely pleased if the president could find another Judge Roberts out there," Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. "Somebody of superb and unquestioned legal qualifications, devoted more to the law than promoting a particular agenda."
About 8 out of 10 Republicans supported Roberts' nomination, according to the Gallup Poll. He also had support from 5 out of 10 independents and more than 4 out of 10 Democrats.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush wanted someone "who is going to be fair and open-minded, someone who will faithfully interpret our Constitution and our laws, and someone who has the kind of qualities that he found in Judge Roberts."
Those qualities, he said, included "the integrity and the modesty and the judicial temperament needed to serve the American people well in the highest court in our land."
The president also was considering gender and race, including several women and minorities. O'Connor's pending retirement would leave just one woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the nine-member court. There is one black justice, Clarence Thomas, and no Hispanics.
"He is mindful that we are a country that is diverse," McClellan said.
As he did going into the last nomination, Bush has the help of private groups that are working to stifle the threat of a filibuster even before the nomination is revealed. The Progress for America Voter Fund, for instance, launched a new cable-TV ad Thursday urging the Senate to give the new nominee an up-or-down vote, as it did for Roberts.
The president's pick poses different political challenges for Democrats.
Liberal groups are disappointed that only 22 Senate Democrats voted against Roberts and have signaled that they want more vocal opposition to the next nominee, even if he or she is a Roberts clone.
"The fight goes on," said Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women. "The next nomination will be to replace swing-vote Sandra Day O'Connor, and women will be ready. George Bush has an opportunity to replace the first female justice with a woman who will act judiciously and not dismantle our fundamental rights.
"If Bush chooses a nominee whose only intention is to scale back the rights we have fought decades to win, we are prepared for a battle royal. Bring it on."
(The Gallup Poll on Bush and Roberts surveyed 818 adults Sept. 16-18 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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