Washington Chief Justice-nominee John Roberts, his confirmation secure, picked up support from fractured Senate Democrats on Wednesday as President Bush met lawmakers to discuss a second vacancy on the Supreme Court.
The Senate Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, announced his endorsement shortly after leaving the White House. That guaranteed bipartisan backing for Roberts in Thursday's scheduled vote by the committee.
But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, liberal stalwarts Barbara Boxer of California and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, former presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts and New Jersey Sens. Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg all are opposing Roberts. Their stand is evidence of the split among the Senate's 44 Democrats about whether they can or should mount even symbolic opposition to the successor to late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
Because Republicans control the Senate and the committee, majority support was assured for the vote and for confirmation next week in the full Senate.
Some of the Democrats' liberal supporters hoped a strong vote against Roberts would signal to Bush that if he were to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a far-right conservative, it would lead to a bigger fight in the Senate.
Leahy, who has led filibuster fights against Bush's lower court nominees, said in a Senate speech, "I do not intend to lend my support to an effort by this president to move the Supreme Court and the law radically to the right."
But Roberts "is a man of integrity," said Leahy, who told Roberts over the telephone about his decision. "I can only take him at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda."
Other Democrats, including Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana, also have announced their support. Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana are leaning toward voting for Roberts. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota is viewed as a possible vote for him, as well.
The other six Judiciary Democrats - Joseph Biden, Herb Kohl, Charles Schumer, Dick Durbin, Russell Feingold and Dianne Feinstein - have not announced their votes.
Durbin and Schumer were confronted by television producer Norman Lear and other major party supporters during a trip to the West Coast over the weekend, according to party officials familiar with the conversation.
These Democratic supporters are strongly opposed to Roberts. They want Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Schumer, the head of the Senate Democratic campaign committee, to oppose his confirmation.