WASHINGTON - Chief Justice-nominee John Roberts, his confirmation secure, picked up support from fractured Senate Democrats Wednesday as President Bush met lawmakers to discuss a second, probably more contentious, vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, announced his support for Roberts shortly after leaving the White House, guaranteeing bipartisan backing for the nominee in Thursday's vote by the panel.
But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, longtime liberal stalwart Edward Kennedy and former presidential candidate John Kerry all are opposing Roberts, underscoring a split in the Senate's 44 Democrats on whether they can or should mount even symbolic opposition to the successor of the late William H. Rehnquist.
Republicans control the Senate and the Judiciary Committee, so majority support was already assured for the panel's vote on Thursday and for confirmation next week.
However, some of the Democrats' liberal supporters hoped that a strong vote against Roberts would signal to Bush that replacing retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a far-right conservative would lead to a bigger fight in the Senate.
Leahy, who has led filibuster fights against Bush's lower court nominees, said in a speech on the Senate floor, "I do not intend to lend my support to an effort by this president to move the Supreme Court and the law radically to the right."
But Roberts "is a man of integrity," said Leahy. "I can only take him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda."
Other Democrats, including Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana, also have announced their support. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are leaning toward voting for Roberts, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota is viewed as a possible vote for him as well.
Roberts is "very well credentialed," Landrieu said Wednesday.
The other six Judiciary Democrats - Joseph Biden, Herb Kohl, Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Russell Feingold and Dianne Feinstein - have yet to announce their votes.
Durbin and Schumer were confronted by television producer Norman Lear and other major party supporters during a trip to the West Coast over the weekend, according to party officials familiar with the conversation.
These Democratic supporters are strongly opposed to Roberts, and want Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Schumer, the head of the campaign committee, to oppose his confirmation.
Leahy's decision was "inexplicable and deeply disappointing," said Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way.
The stakes become greater with the next nominee, and "the next nomination is going to be a great deal more contentious," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the Judiciary Committee's chairman.
The conservative Roberts is replacing Rehnquist, a reliably conservative vote on the court. Bush's next nominee will replace O'Connor, one of the court's swing voters on affirmative action, abortion, campaign finance, discrimination and death penalty cases. Replacing her could give the president a chance swing the court to the right on many issues.
First lady Laura Bush reiterated in an Associated Press interview Tuesday that she hoped the president would name a woman.
Specter cautioned Bush during the Wednesday morning meeting that nominating either Priscilla Owen or Janice Rogers Brown - two appeals court judges Democrats filibustered but eventually allowed to be confirmed - to the O'Connor seat could cause problems, according to a congressional official familiar with the meeting. That official spoke on condition of anonymity because the give-and-take was considered confidential.
The senators offered some names to the president, who did not share his own opinions. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was considering a diverse list.
Among candidates widely mentioned are: federal appellate judges Owen, Brown, Edith Brown Clement, Edith Holland Jones, Emilio Garza, Edward Charles Prado, Alice Batchelder, Karen Williams, J. Michael Luttig, J. Harvie Wilkinson, Michael McConnell and Samuel Alito. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, lawyer Miguel Estrada and Maura Corrigan, a member of the Michigan Supreme Court, are also considered possibilities.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he urged the president to announce his decision within the next 10 days or so. Frist said a new justice could be confirmed "by Thanksgiving if that nomination comes quickly enough."
Specter suggested that the president wait awhile, and said he had talked to O'Connor about staying on through the full 2005-2006 term.
"It would be quite a sacrifice for her, but she's prepared to do it if she is asked," Specter said. "By next June we'll know a lot more about Judge Roberts ... than we do today."