WASHINGTON—Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid will vote against confirmation of John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the Supreme Court, he announced Tuesday.
Reid's opposition will not change the outcome. The Republican-controlled Senate is still expected to confirm Roberts as the nation's next chief justice, probably next week.
But it could increase pressure on other fence-sitting Democrats like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York to vote no. It also could embolden President Bush to pick a more controversial nominee for the remaining court vacancy, thus increasing the chances of a more contentious fight.
Reid's opposition to Roberts came as he prepared to meet with Bush on Wednesday to discuss whom Bush might pick to fill the seat being vacated by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Joining Reid at that meeting will be Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and the Senate Judiciary Committee's leaders—Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the senior Democrat.
In a Senate floor speech, Reid said he decided to oppose Roberts based on memos Roberts wrote early in his career challenging affirmative action, civil rights and women's rights. The Nevada Democrat said Roberts' two years as an appeals court judge left too short a record to signal how he might rule on such issues in the future.
Reid told his fellow Democrats that he did not expect them to follow him out of party loyalty. Rather, he told them, he would leave it to them to make up their own minds, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who added that he has not decided.
One senator who did signal he would join Reid in opposition was Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
"This is really a leap of faith, isn't it?" Kennedy said Tuesday. "There are those that took the leap in terms of the war, there were those who took the leap in terms of taxes and now they are being invited to take the leap again in terms of Judge Roberts. And I don't think I'm going to be among them."
Two other Democrats signaled they would vote for Roberts.
"I'm inclined to vote for Roberts unless something else comes up," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
"I've not seen anything that would cause me to vote against" Roberts, said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Several other leading Senate Democrats have refused to say how they will vote, notably including those who might run for president in 2008. They include Clinton, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joseph Biden of Delaware and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
Asked if she had decided, Clinton only shrugged as she entered a Capitol elevator Tuesday.
"We hope that Senator Reid's colleagues will reach the same conclusion and take the same strong stand," said Ralph Neas, president of the People for the American Way, a liberal group.
Opposing Roberts might anger some independents but could appeal to liberal party activists.
A majority of Americans, 58 percent, want the Senate to confirm Roberts, according to a recent Gallup Poll. But just 41 percent of Democrats want Roberts confirmed. That suggests Democrats who oppose Roberts face little political risk among their base.
"They're just shoring up their base," said Betty Glad, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Reid is pressing his case at a time when Bush is at his weakest politically, with the lowest approval ratings of his presidency. But Democratic opposition to Roberts—who emerged politically unscathed by his appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee—could signal to Bush that he cannot win Democratic support anyway and therefore should go ahead with a more confrontational nomination.
That could lead Democrats to filibuster, possibly prompting Republicans to invoke the "nuclear option" of ending the right of a minority to block Senate action.
"It's likely the next nominee will not be as bulletproof as Roberts," said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota. "Bush is going to do what he wants to do. If he has to fight for it, he's still going to get what he wants. This is not an administration that blinks."
(The Gallup Poll of 1,005 adults was conducted Sept. 8-11 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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