Nation & World

Filibuster on Roberts looks unlikely

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. appears unlikely to be blocked by the delaying tactics of a Democratic filibuster, members of a key group of senators said yesterday.

Roberts was the topic of conversation when the bipartisan "Gang of 14," which cut a deal in the spring to keep the Senate from melting down over judicial appointments, met privately for about an hour. Afterward, senators from both parties said they saw no indication that a filibuster is a prospect.

"I think the consensus was that this was a good pick," said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican. "I don't think anybody sees a filibuster on the horizon."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, said no one in the group is intending to try to stall or block the nomination. But hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be the first body to vote on Roberts' appointment, are crucial, he said.

"This nominee has very impressive academic and legal credentials," Lieberman said. "But we don't know very much about his legal philosophy."

When they brokered their compromise deal, the seven Democrats and seven Republicans preserved the use of the filibuster - the Senate's unique parliamentary stalling tactic - for judicial nominations. But they said it should be employed only in "extraordinary circumstances," a phrase that was left purposefully vague.

Yesterday, senators said no member of the group from either party had given any hint that the carefully brokered compromise would be threatened.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, said from the mood of the meeting, Roberts looked like a good candidate for confirmation. The committee hearings, which will be nationally televised, are expected to begin in early September.

"I think it's our hope that we don't have to play a role because the nomination was submitted to the Judiciary Committee, not the Gang of 14," Nelson said. "What I would say is we're not disbanding, but we're just simply going to watch like everybody else."

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who played host for the meeting, said the senators were "guardedly optimistic, but we want the process to play out." Like other Republicans, McCain has made supportive comments about Roberts since Bush announced the nomination Tuesday night.

Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, another member of the group, cautioned that an unexpected surprise could prompt him or another member of the group to raise an objection to Roberts. He said senators should wait until the post-Labor Day hearings before reaching any conclusions.

"I don't think anybody should prejudge anything at this time," the freshman senator said.

Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island said there could be votes against Roberts - and that he himself might be one of them if something disturbing emerged during the hearings. Ultimately, though, the president is likely to see his nominee confirmed.

"I don't think we'll be playing any dramatic role, unless something changes," Chafee said of the bipartisan group. "Unless something changes, I think any votes against him would be, essentially, votes against the agenda that the president supports, and you can't expect another nominee to be any different, considering who's appointing him."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said that when he met with Roberts on Wednesday, the nominee talked about modesty and stability in approaching the court.

Roberts appeared to be "a nonactivist judge, which everyone is looking for," Specter said.

The Senate has 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and one independent, who usually votes with the Democrats. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, which Democrats have used to block several of Bush's judicial picks, as well as the nomination of John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations.

After months of Senate sparring over judges, much of it aimed at laying the groundwork for a long-anticipated Supreme Court nomination, Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee pushed the chamber to the brink of a showdown in late May. He threatened to force a change in Senate rules outlawing judicial filibusters, which would make it easier for Bush's nominees by merely requiring a simple majority of 51 votes to overcome Democratic opposition.

On the eve of the threatened vote, the Gang of 14 agreed to oppose Frist's gambit, often called the "nuclear option." As part of their agreement, the 14 senators pledged not to support judicial filibusters, except in "extraordinary circumstances."

The deal led to the confirmation of several Bush appointees who had been stalled by Democrats, though two others are still blocked.

An absence of a rich paper trail of rulings and writings by Roberts has given liberals little information on which to base their opposition thus far.

Any attempt to stop him may wind up revolving around government documents from his years of service in the Republican administrations of President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush. Democrats argue that White House disclosure of the documents might help senators better understand Roberts' legal philosophy and offer clues to the kind of justice he might be.

But Republicans said release of the documents would be improper because it would violate Bush's right to keep the documents secret.