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Moderates cast doubt on court stalemate

President seeks 'timely, fair hearing' for Roberts in Senate

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, right, meets with Roberts on Wednesday. Leahy urged Roberts "to be open."




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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's pick for the Supreme Court made a round of courtesy calls to top lawmakers Wednesday, with a key group of moderates casting doubt on the possibility of a stalemate in the Senate.

John Roberts, a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other leading Republicans to discuss his confirmation hearings. He sat down with their Democratic counterparts later in the day.

"I appreciate and respect the constitutional role of the Senate in the appointment process, and I'm very grateful to the senators for accommodating me," Roberts said.

Bush announced Tuesday night that he was nominating Roberts for the Supreme Court seat now held by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a frequent swing vote on the court. (Full story)

His nomination must be approved by the Senate, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will likely begin confirmation hearings after Labor Day.

Republicans welcomed the selection of a nominee with a solid conservative record, with Frist calling him "the best of the best legal minds in America."

But many Democrats said they were withholding judgment on Roberts until they could examine his record and hear him testify.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken Wednesday night found that some Americans are taking a similar approach, with more than three-fourths of respondents saying they need to learn more about Roberts before deciding whether to support him. (Full story)

Meanwhile, three members of the Senate's so-called Gang of 14 downplayed the chances of a Democratic filibuster to block the nomination.

The Senate narrowly avoided a showdown over Bush's appellate court nominees in May when the bipartisan group of moderates agreed to limit their support of filibusters to what they termed "extraordinary circumstances." (Full story)

Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who was involved with the compromise, said Wednesday he had not yet heard any talk of a filibuster on Roberts' nomination.

"Sometimes there's hallway whisper," Nelson said. "It's still new, but I'm not hearing it."

Calling himself a "card-carrying member of the Gang of 14," Sen John McCain expressed support for Roberts.

"I think that Judge Roberts deserves an up-or-down vote," said the Arizona Republican.

And Virginia Republican John Warner said he didn't believe anything in Roberts' case would be considered "extraordinary."

"This man has the right stuff and will do the right thing for America," he said.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, left open the possibility of a filibuster, citing initial concerns over issues including abortion, veterans and the environment.

"Everything has to be on the table, because we have to do our work," she said. "A filibuster is on the table. Hopefully, we don't have to use it."

Roberts began his day at the White House, having coffee with Bush.

"We're lucky to have a man of such wisdom and intellectual strength to serve our country," Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden afterward.

Bush said he is confident Roberts will get "a timely hearing, a fair hearing" that will put him on the court by the start of its new term in October.

Leahy: Areas of concern

Roberts has served on the D.C. circuit since 2003 and has written 60 opinions.

Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said each of those decisions would be studied thoroughly during "full, fair, and complete" hearings. (Conservative credentials)

But Utah Republican Orrin Hatch said Roberts was unlikely to give extensive answers to questions that might reveal his opinions on cases that could come before the court.

"Senators can ask any questions they want, but these justice nominees really don't have to answer them," said Hatch, a former Judiciary Committee chairman.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said he had "an interesting and a good meeting" with Roberts, urging the nominee "to be open about every question."

Earlier, Leahy said the Senate must ensure people who get lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court will protect the liberties of all Americans.

"Preliminary views of Judge Roberts' record suggest areas of significant concern," Leahy said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Roberts needs to answer more questions than he did in his 2003 confirmation hearings.

"I've talked to most of my colleagues already," he said. "I don't think anyone's made up his or her mind."

Fred Thompson, the actor and former Republican senator from Tennessee who Bush selected to usher Roberts' nomination through the Senate, said his old colleagues have "a right and duty to ask tough questions."

But, Thompson added, "[Roberts] will not be prejudging any cases before the committee or anywhere else."

Roberts, 50, argued 39 cases in front of the Supreme Court as a private attorney and deputy solicitor general during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the president's father.(Interactive: Bio)

He served as a law clerk for William Rehnquist when he was an associate justice, as an assistant White House counsel in the Reagan administration and as a legal adviser to the Bush campaign during the 2000 Florida recount. (Profile)

Abortion issue emerges

Liberal and conservative partisans began cranking up their fax machines even before Bush made the formal announcement.

A prominent abortion rights group -- NARAL Pro-Choice America -- said it opposes Roberts' nomination because of the anti-abortion positions he argued as deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration.

Roberts said during those arguments for the government before the Supreme Court in 1990 that the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling striking down state laws criminalizing abortion "was wrongly decided and should be overruled."

In his 2003 confirmation hearing on his nomination to the D.C. appellate court, however, he said he was acting as an advocate for his client, rather than presenting his own positions.

Roberts told senators Roe v. Wade was "the settled law of the land" and that "there's nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent."

Specter, who supports abortion rights, said he was "perturbed" by NARAL's early opposition. "I hope that the rhetoric will be low to give Judge Roberts a chance to be heard," he said.

Top Justice Department officials Wednesday did not rule out providing senators with documents relating to Roberts' legal work as deputy solicitor general.

The senior officials, who asked not to be identified, said they would consider any such requests on a case-by-case basis.

CNN's Terry Frieden and Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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