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Roberts on the charm offensive

Senators reserve judgment; no public opposition so far

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Supreme Court nominee John Roberts spent a second day Thursday visiting senators on Capitol Hill, where the contentiousness many expected to see over the first high court confirmation in 11 years was nowhere in sight.

"It's much more quiet than I thought," said Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee. "People that you would normally think would fight this president's judges are relatively quiet, reserving judgment -- probably going to hope that something will come up that will be very controversial."

President Bush used a free trade speech in front of the Organization of American States Thursday to offer his support to Roberts -- and his appreciation to senators for their reception of his first Supreme Court nominee.

"I want to thank the senators from both political parties who are giving Judge Roberts the chance to talk about his heart, to talk about his philosophy," Bush said. "He is a person that will make all Americans proud to be a member of the Supreme Court."

Bush nominated the 50-year-old judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Tuesday to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who announced her retirement July 1.

Also Thursday a bipartisan group of senators which reached an agreement in May to end filibusters of President Bush's judicial nominations met to discuss the Roberts nomination.

The so-called Gang of 14 later said their consensus was that the "extraordinary circumstances" required to break their agreement were not present, at least so far.

"There was united agreement that it's too early to reach judgment," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democrat from Connecticut. "But I think there was also a consensus that we're in a lot better position today than we might have been -- that this is a credible nominee and not one, that, as far as we know now, has a record that could in any sense be described as extremist."

Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, another Gang of 14 Democrat, said, "The process has begun smoothly."

"That's what many of us in our group and many senators were hoping for -- a nominee that could help unite the country," she told CNN's "Inside Politics." "The first indications are good, but ... the verdict is still out."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Democrat from Nevada who rallied his members to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees before the Gang of 14 agreement, said that "no one sees extraordinary circumstances at this stage." But he also noted that the process of investigating and questioning Roberts had only begun.

If the Gang of 14 agreement holds and Republican senators stand solidly behind Roberts' nomination, approval would be almost certain because GOP leaders would have enough votes to cut off a filibuster. Under such a parliamentary maneuver, a measure can be delayed indefinitely with extended debate.

Sixty votes are needed to cut off a filibuster. The chamber's 55 Republicans, combined with the seven Democrats in the Gang of 14, would provide 62.

Courting the left

Among the senators Roberts met with Thursday were two liberal stalwarts on the Judiciary Committee who have often been critical of Bush's judicial nominations -- Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Afterward, Schumer described his meeting with Roberts as a "very cordial" get-acquainted session, during which they discussed their days studying at Harvard. The senator said that even though he opposed Roberts' nomination to the federal appellate bench, "I told him that my mind was totally open."

"He told me that he hoped that he could persuade me to win his vote over. And I said I hoped he could too, because we'd all prefer a harmonious process," Schumer said.

At the end of the meeting, Schumer said he gave Roberts a list of questions he might ask, so the judge could prepare.

"This is not a game of 'gotcha.' This is a game to figure out how somebody thinks and what their judicial philosophy is and what their method legal reasoning is," Schumer said. "He doesn't have to answer every one of those questions to get an idea. But I don't think it would be very helpful if he said, 'I can't answer any of them.'"

Abortion: a key card

Among the topics about which Roberts will almost certainly be questioned are his views on abortion rights.

As a deputy solicitor general in the administration of former President George H.W. Bush, Roberts authored a legal brief arguing that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established a constitutional right for a woman to have an abortion, was wrongly decided and should be overturned.

However, during his confirmation hearings for the federal appellate bench in 2003, Roberts explained that he was acting as an advocate for the administration's position in that case, and that he considered Roe "settled law" that he was obligated to follow as a D.C. Circuit judge.

Roberts also told senators at the time that "there's no role for advocacy with respect to personal beliefs or views on the part of a judge."

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican member of the Gang of 14 who supports abortion rights, said Thursday that she was "very heartened" by Roberts' explanation.

"He said that there was nothing in his personal beliefs that would prevent him from fully and faithfully applying that decision," she said. "Now, obviously, the Supreme Court has the ability to overturn its precedents. But I'm looking for a justice who will respect precedents. The Supreme Court does not ignore precedents."

While abortion rights groups have expressed alarm about Roberts' past legal work and vowed to fight the nomination, one of the Senate's leading opponents of abortion rights, Sen. Sam Brownback, the Republican from Kansas, also expressed reservations about a nominee whose views on the subject remain largely unknown.

Brownback, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told the Kansas City Star that "in the past, we've seen that if someone is not well articulated on a position, the tendency is to move left on the bench."

Another possible issue for the confirmation process is whether the Justice Department will provide senators with documents dating from Roberts' work there during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

While the current Bush administration has resisted such requests made for other nominees, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales did not close the door to providing such documents in Roberts' case.

"We will look forward to working with the Senate in making sure that they have information that is appropriate for the consideration for this nominee," Gonzales told CNN's "American Morning" Thursday.

CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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