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After Rehnquist’s Death, the Focus Of Democrats Shifts From Roberts<P>By David D. Kirkpatrick THE NEW YORK TIMES <P>WASHINGTON <P>

After Rehnquist’s Death, the Focus Of Democrats Shifts From Roberts

By David D. Kirkpatrick


Senate Democrats say the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has eased the pressure on them to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. but has set the stage for a more contentious battle over the other vacancy on the court.

“When you are thinking about the balance of the court, you say, ‘OK, Judge Roberts is replacing Justice Rehnquist,”’ said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. “Consider him on his merits, but it doesn’t alter the balance of the court.”

Democratic senators and strategists say they are weighing whether to save their ammunition for the next nominee, who would succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who is retiring. She was often the swing vote on social issues.

Liberal groups had vowed to hold accountable any senator who voted to confirm Roberts if he ended up moving the court to the right on abortion rights, affirmative action or other issues, but the death of a conservative justice revives the possibility that the next nominee may preserve the current equilibrium.

Since Rehnquist’s death, some prominent Democratic critics of Roberts have acknowledged more openly that he is likely to win confirmation.

“Has anything come up before the hearings that is a showstopper for Roberts? The answer is no,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip who, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, voted against confirming Roberts to a federal appeals court seat two years ago.

With hearings on Roberts’ confirmation set to start Monday, Democratic leaders are already laying the groundwork for the next battle.

On Thursday, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a vocal member of the Judiciary Committee, and others sent the president a letter urging him to consult them more extensively than he did before naming Roberts.

“It is especially important to identify a consensus candidate to succeed Justice O’Connor, who has been a voice of reason and moderation,” the letter said.

Although Reid has not taken a position on Roberts, he recently made clear that he would object to several of the names reported to be on the president’s short list for the other court seat: the federal appeals court judges J. Michael Luttig, Emilio M. Garza and Edith H. Jones.

“Senator Reid doesn’t feel that someone such as either Luttig, Garza or Jones, among others, would be a suitable replacement for Justice O’Connor,” his spokesman, Jim Manley, said Thursday.

Schumer, for his part, said some on the short list were “totally unacceptable” and others were “more acceptable,” including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Bush’s former deputy attorney general, Larry D. Thompson.

Social conservatives are urging the White House not to nominate Gonzales because they fear he is not committed to opposing abortion rights.