WASHINGTON - John Roberts, hailed by supporters as "the brightest of the bright," cruised Monday toward easy confirmation as chief justice while President Bush hinted that his next pick to the Supreme Court could be a minority or a woman.
"Diversity is one of the strengths of the country," the president said.
Roberts, a 50-year-old federal appellate judge and the president's first pick for the Supreme Court, is assured of getting an overwhelming confirmation vote by the Senate later this week, making him the nation's 17th chief justice.
Roberts is "the brightest of the bright," declared Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., as the Senate began several days of debate.
Two-thirds of the 100 senators - both Republicans and Democrats - already had promised to support Roberts as the successor to the late William H. Rehnquist before the debate began. Roberts' would-be colleagues support him, too, said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
"The word is that the justices very much applaud his nomination to be chief justice," Specter said. "He has the potential, almost from a running start, to bring a new day and a new era to the Supreme Court."
With Roberts' confirmation guaranteed, senators and Bush started turning to the White House's upcoming selection of a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Specter said he expects that nomination to come "shortly, if not immediately, after a decision is made by the Senate on the Roberts nomination."
Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., expect Roberts to be confirmed by Thursday, and Bush is expected to make his next selection for the Supreme Court soon after that.
"I will pick a person who can do the job. But I am mindful that diversity is one of the strengths of the country," Bush said Monday. He is under pressure from many quarters - including his wife - to pick a woman or a minority for O'Connor's seat.
Widely mentioned candidates include federal appellate judges Janice Rogers Brown, Edith Brown Clement, Edith Hollan Jones, Emilio Garza, 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.
Roberts' Democratic supporters warned the White House not to take their support for granted on the next nominee, especially if Bush chooses a hard-right conservative to replace O'Connor.
"We're asking him in this case especially: Be a uniter. Don't be a divider, for the sake of the country," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Leahy is one of the 13 Democrats supporting Roberts. With all 55 Republicans expected to vote for the conservative judge, he will easily surpass the number of votes garnered by the last conservative nominee, Clarence Thomas, who was confirmed, 52-48, in 1991.
"I believe there is value in rolling up the score," Specter said.
President Clinton's two nominees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, were confirmed 96-3 and 87-9, respectively.
Democrats opposing Roberts say they're afraid the former lawyer in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations will be staunchly conservative like Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia.
They question Roberts' commitment to civil rights and expressed concern that he might overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade court ruling that established the right to abortion. The White House refused to release paperwork from Roberts' time as a deputy solicitor general in the administration of George H. W. Bush, and the nominee refused to fully answer Democrats' questions during his confirmation hearing two weeks ago.
"I have too many doubts about the direction a Roberts court will take us. Persistent, nagging doubts," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.