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Bush Initiates Talks With Deal Signers

The White House began reaching out last week to Senate Democrats on the future of the Supreme Court, including initiating discussions with key members of the “Gang of 14,” whose deal averted the judicial filibuster showdown in May.

With President Bush having returned from Europe on Friday, those discussions are expected to enter a more direct phase as Bush sits down Tuesday morning at the White House with a bipartisan group of Senate leaders.

As observers from Capitol Hill, the administration and the legal community continue to watch the court for any additional retirements, Bush has given no indication of how quickly a nomination will come to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Some White House officials have floated the notion that it could be “weeks” before the nominee or nominees are announced.

Democratic leaders have tried to frame the nature of the debate early on by declaring that the White House should fully consult with them before declaring a nominee, and it’s unclear how happy they are with what they’ve seen so far.

One Democratic aide said Friday the White House has to do more than just ask Senate Democrats for some input on ideas of nominees.

“It’s more the president sharing his list with us,” the aide said.

In the meantime, the White House has engaged several key Democrats who could prove to be critical players in defusing any effort to filibuster a nomination.

In a sign of how serious the White House is taking that threat, at least three Democrats who were part of the “Gang of 14” — Sens. Robert Byrd (W. Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — had been contacted by Bush administration officials as of late Friday.

The “Gang of 14” deal, signed by seven Democrats and seven Republicans, allowed for some of the previously filibustered nominees to win confirmation but prevented Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) from having the votes to end the practice of judicial filibusters. If Democratic leaders to try to launch a filibuster of a nominee to the court, they will need to peel off at least three of those Democrats from the “Gang of 14” deal.

The seven Democrats who signed on to the deal are holding their own meeting Tuesday afternoon in Pryor’s office following the party’s weekly caucus luncheon, aides said. That will be followed with another gathering of all 14 Senators, tentatively slated as a breakfast meeting Thursday.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called Nelson Tuesday from Air Force One as he was traveling with Bush to Scotland, soliciting his views on a nominee, according to Nelson spokesman David DiMartino. Nelson told Card that Bush’s “number one goal” should be “a good jurist who won’t be an activist judge,” DiMartino said.

Byrd did not specify which White House official he spoke with, but he put out a statement announcing that the discussion took place early last week.

“I think that it is a good sign that the White House is listening to Senators from both parties and following the intent of the Constitution,” Byrd said, adding that he wants a nominee who understands the historical underpinnings of the Constitution and respects judicial precedent.

And Pryor traded messages with Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove late last week on the Supreme Court nomination, said Rodell Mollineau, Pryor’s spokesman. Heading into the weekend, Pryor was still trying to line up a formal conversation.

Republican signatories of the deal, including Sens. John Warner (Va.) and John McCain (Ariz.), have declared their optimism that the pact will hold strong and that no “extraordinary circumstances” will emerge that prompt the seven Democrats to support a filibuster effort.

Ultimately, however, those seven Democrats will have to make that decision — a choice that could prompt Frist to try to push the so-called “nuclear option” again to bar judicial filibusters.

Tuesday’s White House meeting, tentatively scheduled for 7 a.m., will mark the first face-to-face discussions Bush has had with any Senate leaders on the issue since O’Connor’s retirement. The meeting is expected to include Frist, Reid and the top Senators on the Judiciary Committee — Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and ranking member Pat Leahy (D-Vt.).

Bush and Reid spoke one-on-one for 10 minutes about the potential for a vacancy during a bipartisan, bicameral meeting of Congressional leaders at the White House last Tuesday, according to Reid spokesman Jim Manley. After O’Connor’s retirement announcement, Reid missed Bush’s call and the president left him a voice-mail message.

Bush spoke for almost 15 minutes with Leahy on the day of O’Connor’s announcement. In addition, Card also spoke on Wednesday from Europe with Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who is a leading liberal voice on the Judiciary Committee.

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