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John King: White House 'ready to go' on O'Connor replacement

John King is CNN's chief national correspondent.



On the Scene
White House
Sandra Day O'Connor

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Friday he will pick a successor to Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in a timely manner so her vacancy can be filled by the time the Supreme Court resumes work in the fall.

The White House said he would not decide before returning from Europe on July 8.

CNN's chief national correspondent John King talked with CNN anchor Daryn Kagan about the looming political battle over choosing a replacement for O'Connor.

Daryn Kagan: The White House says there will be no announcement of a nominee today, perhaps out of respect for Justice O'Connor. But you know they've got to be ready to go?

John King: They are ready to go, Daryn. The question is, will the president change his mind at the last minute? Does he already have the pick or is he looking at a list of two or three and wants to circle the final pick once he knows who the resignation is? Will his choice be different now that it is Sandra Day O'Connor and not the Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is stepping down?

Kagan: Will there be pressure to name a woman?

King: There will be pressure from conservative groups that this could shift the ideological balance of the court, now that it is Sandra O'Connor. So the White House will wait. And you are right, that is out of tribute to Justice O'Connor.

It won't wait long, in part because the president wants to move quickly to get this confirmation, to get the nomination in the pipeline, the confirmation, and in part because the longer you wait, the more political pressure you face.

Daryn, I'll add this lpoint. Obviously, Justice O'Connor has resigned today; the chief justice is in ill-health. He is a very proud and a very stubborn man. He has obviously decided not to retire, at least yet.

But don't think for a minute that this president could not face a second resignation from the Court, either before the next term or shortly thereafter, shortly after the next term begins.

Kagan: What is the timeframe here and what lies ahead the second half of '05 in Washington and the schedule on Capitol Hill and trying to get a nominee through?

King: Well, certainly the Senate is about to go home for the July 4th recess. The president will make his pick. The majority leader and even the Democrats will say they will consider this pick as soon as possible.

The question then becomes, of course, how protracted of a process do we have? Does the president choose someone who Democrats, liberals, might not like but who understand is qualified for the court or will there be an all-out battle?

The history of this president is that he's not afraid to pick a fight. There are many urging him to take a more conciliatory route. But especially, again, because it is a swing vote on the court, Justice O'Connor stepping down, there will be enormous pressure on this president. If he needs any pressure.

This is a president who tends to stick to conservative tact, his conservative philosophy. Look for the -- we want to talk about Social Security, you want to talk about tax reform. When the Congress comes back from its summer recess, we will be talking about the Supreme Court, pretty much, period.

King: The White House is prepared and has been building its political operation for this nomination. So has the other side, what we expect to be the other side of this debate.

Already, you see liberal groups, People for the American Way, saying Sandra Day O'Connor should be replaced by somebody like her. A moderate voice, they called her. Other pro-choice groups, Planned Parenthood of America, saying she should be replaced by someone who shares her views. She, of course, has been a swing vote on the abortion issue.

The Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, who will have a huge role in the confirmation process, just issuing a statement paying tribute to Justice O'Connor and saying that, "Above all, Justice O'Connor has been a voice of reason and moderation on the court. It is vital that she be replaced by someone like her, someone who embodies the fundamental American values of freedom, equality and fairness."

So you see the polarization beginning to be drawn even before the president speaks, even before we have any idea who his nominee to replace Justice O'Connor will be.

If you think Washington has been polarized over issues like Social Security, over political issues, even over those lower federal court appointments the president has raised in recent months, be prepared for Washington in a very fierce fight.

Kagan: Yes. It was interesting to hear Sen. John McCain of Arizona say he thought that it was almost a good exercise that they had been through what they have on the federal judges, that perhaps they worked out some of that. But it sounds like perhaps you would expect something different.

King: Well, there are many contrarians. There are many contrarians who say if the president comes up with a pick from the federal bench that has been voted several times, previously confirmed by members of the Senate, the Democrats will be in a bit of a box, if you will, on record having supported this person, that perhaps they can say I disagree with you, but you are well qualified.

But given all the buildup for this, the interest groups are certainly ready to spend millions and tens of millions of dollars on this.

So when we know the president's pick, we'll have a much better idea of the fight ahead. But they are prepared for it. There are some contrarians. And Sen. McCain is a hopeful among them, that perhaps this will not be as polarizing and as bitter as some have predicted.

The conservative groups will be geared up even more now because there is a key right-to-die case from Oregon the court will consider in the fall. There is an abortion case out of New Hampshire that the court will consider in the fall.

Those who have looked at those 5-4 rulings and have been on either side of those fights, the winning or the losing side from their political and ideological perspective, will gear up, I think, even more intensely for this battle than they would have if the chief justice resigned.

Organizations are talking about spending $20 million, $30 million, perhaps $50 million on advertising, and lobbying, other campaigns. This is an enormous challenge. Remember how tough the fight for Clarence Thomas was? Well, add in to that now all the ads we see on cable television and other television, all the grassroots political organizations. There will be a great deal of pressure on this president. And I know from our White House correspondents, in their reporting in recent days, this president's prepared to act quite quickly.

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