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Bush to meet with Senate leaders to discuss court vacancy

WASHINGTON—President Bush is sitting down to breakfast Tuesday with key Senate leaders from both parties to talk about filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court—a highly unusual gesture from this president.

Why is he doing it?

Though controlled by Republicans, the Senate has been no friend to Bush. He appears to be going to extraordinary lengths to ensure it doesn't block one of the most important decisions of his presidency, the selection of a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has announced her retirement.

On every major initiative pursued by the White House—from tax cuts to Medicare to Social Security—the Senate has been more obstacle than facilitator. If not for the House of Representatives, where Bush holds considerably more sway, much of Bush's agenda would lie in a heap.

But when it comes to filling O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court, the House plays no role. Constitutionally, it's all up to the Senate to advise and, if it chooses, consent to the president's nominee.

Bush's breakfast with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's ranking Democrat, comes after days of solicitous phone calls from senior White House aides to leading senators of both parties, especially on the Judiciary Committee, to chat about the empty court seat.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that the White House has reached out to 60 senators and that consultations with the Senate have been "wide and deep." In a sign of White House interest in courting senators, Bush last week selected former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., to guide the nominee through the confirmation process.

On Monday, Reid, typically a feisty Bush critic, congratulated the president for talking to him about the court—once before O'Connor announced her retirement and once after. He said Tuesday's morning session "is a good opportunity for us all to work together."

It remains to be seen whether Bush's outreach and the Democrats' guarded murmurs in response are mere courtesy, a public relations display or a substantive attempt to find common ground on a nominee.

Bush is walking a fine line between conservatives, who say the president shouldn't let senators influence his decision, and Democrats, who maintain that his selection should be based on bipartisan input.

The White House's wooing of key senators occurs against the backdrop of a bipartisan deal negotiated in spring by 14 senators—seven Democrats and seven Republicans—who demanded that the White House reach out to the Senate and seek advice on his judicial nominees. Under that agreement, those seven Democrats have agreed not to block a judicial nominee except in an "extraordinary circumstance."

"The Republicans and the administration want to take away from the Democrats this argument that Bush is never consulting and that he just expects a rubber-stamp Senate," said Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles who's written about partisanship and cooperation in the Senate. "What certainly they would like is that when they come up with their nominee, that they are the ones who look like they've been ultra-reasonable."

The seven Democrats are scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon, and the full bipartisan group of 14 has scheduled a meeting for Thursday. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, one of the seven Democrats in the so-called Gang of 14, talked to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card last Tuesday.

Reid on Monday rejected any suggestion that Democrats should recommend names to Bush. "It's important that the names come from him," the top Senate Democrat said, adding that he didn't expect Bush to unveil a list of potential nominees at Tuesday's breakfast. "But I would want to develop some idea of what he expects from us and give us some idea of what we expect to see from him."

Bush, appearing Monday in Quantico, Va., for a speech on terrorism, made an oblique reference to his search for a nominee as he posed for a picture with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who's often mentioned as a potential candidate for the court. Some conservatives have warned Bush not to nominate Gonzales, saying he has equivocated on abortion cases. As camera shutters snapped, Bush looked at reporters and said, "One way to get in the papers is to stand by Gonzales." He then posed with his hand on Gonzales' shoulder.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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