WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee John Roberts will receive "full, fair and complete" hearings, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pledged on Wednesday as a group with White House ties unveiled a televised ad campaign aimed at assuring confirmation.
Abortion rights organizations declared their opposition to Roberts, a 50-year-old federal appeals court judge. But as yet, there were no outright calls for his rejection from any of the Senate's 44 Democrats.
"I urge the Senate to rise to the occasion, provide a fair and civil process and to have Judge Roberts in place before the next court sessions begins on October the third," said President Bush on the morning after tapping the Harvard-educated lawyer with a sterling resume and impeccable conservative credentials.
If confirmed, Roberts would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the court. She has frequently been a swing vote in recent years on issues ranging from abortion to affirmative action and states rights.
That made Roberts' nomination a potential political flash point in the Senate and beyond.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said hearings would begin in late August or more likely early September.
"And I can assure you that the hearings will be full, fair and complete," he told reporters in the Capitol.
Roberts had breakfast with Bush at the White House, but did not speak to reporters. He saved his talking for later in the day, when the White House scheduled the first in a series of courtesy calls on senators who will ultimately decide whether he takes his place on the high court.
His first stop was in the office of Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who has pledged to meet Bush's goal of completing the confirmation proceedings before the court's new term begins on Oct. 3.
There, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republicans predicted a "respectful process" that would culminate in confirmation on the president's timetable.
Roberts also had a meeting with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid on his schedule. Bush's pick "has had an impressive legal career" and other fine qualities. the Nevada lawmaker said in remarks on the Senate floor during the day. But, he added, "they do not automatically qualify John Roberts to serve on the highest court of the land."
He said senators "must be convinced that the nominee will respect constitutional principles and protect the constitutional rights of all Americans."
Abortion surfaced quickly as a point of contention.
NARAL-Pro Choice America announced its opposition to Roberts even before Bush formally made his selection public in a prime time televised White House appearance on Tuesday. The group planned an "emergency demonstration" against the nomination across the street from the Capitol at midday.
On the other side of the political equation, Progress For America called a news conference to announce a television commercial to begin running soon. The group, which coordinates its efforts with presidential aides, pledged in advance to spend at least $18 million on advertising and grass roots activities to buttress the confirmation prospects of whomever Bush chose.
Bush had considered at least one woman to replace O'Connor, and the retiring justice said she was "disappointed in a sense, to see the percentage of women on our court to drop by 50 percent." At the same time, she said of Roberts, "I think he's very well qualified."
Abortion, a polarizing issue for lawmakers, will be the "hot button" issue in the confirmation battle, conceded Fred Thompson, the former senator who will shepherd the nomination through the Senate.
At the same time, he cautioned against reading too much into Roberts' various writings on Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
"Many of the positions he's taken are positions he took as an advocate ... representing a client," said Thompson.
Specter, who supports abortion rights, said he was disappointed that some liberal organizations view Roberts as unsuitable over the issue of abortion.
He did say, though, that he felt it appropriate to ask Roberts about his previous statement that Roe v. Wade was settled law. "If he said it's settled law, it would be relevant to confirm the fact that has been said," Specter said.
Democrats raised questions and said they would await the hearings to seek answers.
"If he wants to be on the Supreme Court, he has to be more forthcoming .... to convince the American people that a man who could serve on the court for 20 to 30 years really is in the mainstream of American thinking," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Democratic concern over Roberts' abortion views stem from two seemingly contradictory positions that Roberts took on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
In a brief that he filed with the Supreme Court while serving as deputy solicitor general in the administration of the first President Bush, Roberts said that Roe v. Wade "was wrongly decided and should be overruled."
Several years later, he told senators during his 2003 confirmation hearings for his current appellate court post that the decision was "the settled law of the land."
Thompson said the administration expects lawmakers to ask tough questions about Roberts' abortion views. But he also said they should distinguish between Roberts' role as a policy advocate as a one-time deputy solicitor general in a Republican administration and his contrasting role as a jurist.
"It's not a question of whose side he's on," Thompson said. "He's on the side of the litigant that comes into court with the facts and the law on their side. And he will not be prejudging any cases before the committee or anyone else."