Despite announcing his own opposition to confirmation, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared Tuesday that Judge John Roberts would be approved as chief justice of the United States, ending any suspense to the surprisingly smooth nomination process for President Bush’s first Supreme Court choice.
While he said too many “unanswered questions” remained about the nominee for Roberts to win his vote, Reid told reporters that he specifically instructed his Caucus to vote their “conscience.” He also said flatly that there would be no filibuster of the Roberts nomination.
“He’s going to be confirmed, that’s never been in doubt,” Reid told reporters in a briefing after delivering his floor statement opposing Roberts.
Reid’s pronouncements provided a mixed bag of results to liberal activists who have been trying to ratchet up pressure on Democrats to oppose Bush’s first selection for the Supreme Court. While Reid’s opposition leaves open the possibility that the new chief justice will carry the stigma of an unusually high number of ‘no’ votes — seven of the eight current justices received 87 or more votes — there is now little internal pressure on Democrats to reject the nominee.
“There are things that I ask the Caucus to follow, this isn’t one of them,” Reid said, adding later, “You can only go to the well so many times.”
However, on the eve of his meeting today with Bush regarding the pick to replace retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Reid signaled Bush would face a far stronger fight if he picked any of those nominees previously filibustered by Democrats in the 108th Congress — a potentially bad omen for lawyer Miguel Estrada and federal appellate Judges Priscilla Owens and Janice Rogers Brown, all of whom have been mentioned as potential nominees.
“I just think the president would be making a terrible mistake,” Reid said when asked about the possibility of nominating previously filibustered candidates.
Mindful that he was disappointing many of the liberal activist groups, Reid suggested those organizations would never be satisfied with the level of fight that Democrats put up against Roberts.
“A lot of these special-interest groups are very hard to satisfy,” he said.
This after two of Reid’s top lieutenants, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), received a sharp rebuke at a weekend meeting in Los Angeles from wealthy activists such as television producer Norman Lear over Roberts’ glide path to confirmation.
At an event on behalf of People For the American Way, the first of the major liberal groups to announce opposition to Roberts, Lear lashed out at the Democrats for not mounting more determined resistance to the nomination, according to several sources familiar with the event.
Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, confirmed that the event included a “frank discussion” between activists and the Senators. He added that Lear, founder of PFAW, did not hear what he wanted from either he or Durbin, the Minority Whip.
“We gave the pros and cons,” Schumer recounted of their discussion about Roberts. “They wanted us to come out against.”
Schumer and Durbin are both on the Judiciary Committee and were among the most aggressive questioners of Roberts at last week’s nomination hearings. But each Senator remains publicly undeclared on Roberts, despite voting against his nomination to U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2003.
Durbin declined to talk about the discussion with Lear.
“I’m not going to get into it,” he said Tuesday.
Ralph Neas, PFAW’s president, likewise declined to comment on the meeting, which was ostensibly a celebration of the group’s new West Coast director, Jeff Berman, a former counsel to Schumer. “When it comes to meetings with Senators, I’m very close-mouthed,” said Neas, who was not on hand for the meeting but acknowledged he was aware of the exchange.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), also a member of the Democratic leadership, was on hand at the PFAW event and also declined to discuss the matter, calling the gathering a “legislative update” for the group’s members on the West Coast.
Reid, who has been requesting that no one in his Caucus announce his or her position on Roberts, said he thought it was important that he make his decision first as leader — a post he’s now held for little more than eight months.
“I wanted to be the first to make a decision,” he said when asked if he had a “special obligation” to oppose the nominee because of his position.
“I wanted this to be my decision,” he added.
Most Democrats are holding to Reid’s mantra of waiting until the Judiciary Committee makes its formal recommendation on the nomination. It is a given that will occur Thursday when Roberts will be sent to the floor with a positive vote.
But enough Democrats, particularly those in conservative-leaning states, have sent signals that they will approve the nominee so there is little drama to the final stage of this fight beyond the expectations game involving how many votes Roberts will receive.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who along with Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has been an outspoken backer of Roberts, reiterated his support again Tuesday.
“I’ve not seen anything that would cause me to vote against [Roberts] at this time. … And I don’t expect anything to come out of the woodwork,” he said.
David M. Drucker contributed to this report.