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Senate Set for Roberts Fight

Democrats Keep Powder Dry

With the surprise nomination of U.S. Judge John Roberts, Senate Republicans and their outside allies began an immediate effort Tuesday night to define his career and personal story before liberal activists could undermine the Supreme Court nominee.

The strategy sessions began in earnest at the weekly afternoon luncheon for Senate Republicans, which was also attended by Vice President Cheney and White House message adviser Edward Gillespie. It continued immediately following the 9 p.m. announcement with GOP Senators and other White House allies hitting the airwaves to talk up the nominee.

Following immediately on the heels of a press event by Judiciary Committee Democrats, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) countered with a 9:30 p.m. press conference in the Senate Radio/TV gallery to defend Roberts, who was confirmed by unanimous voice vote for a seat on the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in May 2003. He was approved 16-3 by Judiciary that spring.

President Bush’s allies were expected to blanket today’s network morning talk shows, and Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was arranging for Senate Republicans to mount a series of floor speeches in defense of the nominee this morning.

Progress for America, a conservative group with close ties to the White House and the Congressional GOP, began the initial phase of its planned $18 million campaign to defend the nomination with a national cable TV advertising campaign. With the ads slated to begin running today, the group is expected to spend in a fashion similar to its previous campaigns defending the White House, which typically cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 a week — considered enough to saturate the moderately to very savvy viewers of cable news programs with information about the nominee.

The group already has purchased a Web site, www.judgeroberts.com, and by 9 p.m. Tuesday it had planned to place supporters outside the Supreme Court steps holding signs that read “extraordinary nominee, not extraordinary circumstances” — where they faced down liberal activists holding their own banners opposing Bush.

That “extraordinary” line was a not-so-subtle reference to the Senate’s “Gang of 14” deal in May that averted the final showdown on Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) effort to change procedures to ban judicial filibusters. The deal, if it holds together, only allows Democrats to support judicial filibusters under the loosely defined term of “extraordinary circumstances.”

The first real hint of whether a filibuster could occur will come Thursday morning, when the group of seven Republicans and seven Democrats will hold its second breakfast meeting in the past week. But the gathering, tentatively planned for Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) office, is the first meeting the “gang” will have convened with an actual nominee to discuss, as opposed to last week’s meeting, which was marked by vague talk of the consultation process.

Roberts will begin appearing on Capitol Hill later this week, with the goal being to have him meet with every member of 18-Senator Judiciary Committee before the scheduled five-and-a-half-week recess begins July 29, according to McConnell.

McConnell and Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who attended a White House meeting about the nomination Monday, continued to defer questions about when hearings will be held before Judiciary.

“It could be late August, could be early September,” McConnell said.

The more conservative Senate Republicans were still pushing for August hearings in order to shorten the amount of time Democrats and liberal activists will have to mount an attack. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a Judiciary member and the Republican Policy Committee chairman, said he was “urging” hearings in late August.

Prior to the nomination announcement, Democrats continued to say that there was no rush to confirmation, with the court not slated to begin its next session until Oct. 3 and plenty of precedent for it to function temporarily with eight justices.

There is no recent precedent for hearings in late August, although Justice Antonin Scalia’s one-day hearing in 1986 was held in early August. The process of background checks, by both the committee and the FBI, is expected to take four to six weeks. Whenever they are held, hearings would last about five days barring any startling developments or revelations.

Once hearings are completed, the nomination is put on the committee’s calendar for consideration at the very next meeting for executive business, which are held every Thursday. Even if Roberts does not receive an affirmative vote, all Supreme Court nominations are forwarded to the full Senate for consideration, the most recent example being the negative recommendation that then-Judge Robert Bork received in 1987 before ultimately failing to be confirmed on a 42-58 vote.

Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to criticize Bush’s consultation process, which he had previously stated should require the president to offer his short list of potential nominees for discussion.

No such list was ever offered, Reid said, but most potential nominees were discussed on some level, including some whom Democrats clearly opposed.

“Some of these names have been really red-flagged,” Reid said Tuesday afternoon, declining to further define what he meant by that phrase.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, said he spoke with Bush on Tuesday before the announcement.

Reid came close to suggesting that the White House had pushed up its timing on the Supreme Court nomination in order to deflate media energy focused on the ongoing investigation into the administration’s leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name in July 2003. Without any provocation from reporters, Reid drly noted how he had yet to receive a question at his weekly press conference on the issue, which had been Topic A on Capitol Hill since revelations that Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove was involved in confirming her job position.

“It’s interesting how the subject has changed,” Reid said.

One Democratic adviser said that most outside liberal groups — a coalition led by the Alliance for Justice, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, NARAL Pro Choice America, and People For the American Way — had to wait to see who the nominee was before they could pounce into action. Those groups opposed Roberts’ circuit court bid and began issuing press releases Tuesday evening questioning his fitness for the high court.

The view in some Democratic quarters is that Republicans must immediately establish a narrative behind Roberts and gain early support, because the left has time to dig through the records and opinions to pick apart the nominee.

“They’ve got to come out strong in the first 24 hours. We’ve got four to six weeks to get it back,” one adviser said.

Conservatives tend to agree.

“Our people will be at warp speed. [Roberts] starts out with 0 percent name identification, but within a week he’ll have 100 percent name ID,” said Stuart Roy, an adviser to Progress for America. “Somebody will be defining who this person is.”

With news of the primetime Bush press conference swirling, the RNC began holding a series of conference calls Tuesday evening with various surrogates around the country.

One such call was with the Judicial Working Group, a collection of Senate leadership staff and outside interest groups charged with ensuring a cohesive launch of the effort to confirm the president’s nominee.

RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman is also expected to send out an e-mail to supporters on the nominee and the committee also sent out a bevy of talking points to supporters expected to appear on television and radio over the next 24 hours.

Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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