With Next Round Ahead, Roberts Vote Presents Dilemma for Senate Democrats ; the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday Voted to Confirm Chief Justice Nominee John Roberts 13-5

Article excerpt

It's official. The long-anticipated Senate battle over the first vacancy on the US Supreme Court in 11 years has been downgraded to a skirmish, as both sides position for the next, more critical court fight.

With three Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voting to confirm John Roberts as chief justice Thursday, the last prospect for a party-line stand to block the nomination on the Senate floor next week expired.

In part, it's a tribute to the nominee, who ground down many of his critics with his grasp of the law and, just as important, his modest, collegial style.

But it's also a careful calculation by each Democratic senator on how best to set up the next vote to replace Sandra Day O'Connor - the key swing vote on the court. And the Roberts vote is providing liberal interest groups with an early test of their clout on an issue with high stakes for the Democratic base.

The vote by the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, was a disappointing tipping point to such groups.

"I have not reflexively opposed conservative nominees. I have drawn the line only at those nominees who are extreme ... in the mold of activists," said Senator Leahy, the first in his party to announce he would support Judge Roberts.

Senator Leahy's decision, coming after a meeting Wednesday with President Bush, alarmed many liberal activists. Prominent civil rights activists, in a meeting with Democrats earlier in the week, insisted that it was "essential to the base" that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and all eight Democrats on the Judiciary panel strongly oppose the nominee.

"We let the Democrats know that this is a very broad coalition of organizations representing their base, and the base is concerned that they pay attention," says Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Feminist groups called the Democratic votes deeply disappointing.

"Democrats have been saying for years to their women's rights and civil rights base: 'Vote for us, and we'll save the Supreme Court.' Now, they have stepped back from using that power," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

But, in fact, the dialogue between Democrats and their key interest groups is harder to parse than such public statements suggest. …