WASHINGTON - President Bush has invited key lawmakers to a White House meeting next week to begin consultations on a replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, officials said Friday.
The meeting, to be held Wednesday, signals the White House is moving to find a successor to O'Connor as Judge John Roberts awaits confirmation as chief justice.
Bush invited Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., as well as Sen. Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's senior Democrat, the Associated Press reported.
The meeting would mirror a session Bush held with the same four lawmakers several weeks ago as he began consultations to fill the first Supreme Court vacancy in 11 years.
At the time, O'Connor had announced her retirement and Bush subsequently selected Roberts to fill her seat.
Roberts' nomination was pending in the Senate when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died nearly two weeks ago. Bush quickly announced he wanted Roberts to succeed Rehnquist, leaving O'Connor on the bench until a replacement could be named, confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.
Roberts' confirmation is virtually assured, most experts say, after hearings that ended Thursday. Roberts, 50, a former Reagan administration lawyer, is an appeals court judge in Washington.
While consulting with senators, the White House has made it clear Bush did not intend to allow lawmakers to make his selection for him or to have a veto over the person he nominates.
"It's a good first step," Leahy said Friday night, "but real consultation is a two-way street."
Reid urged Bush to choose someone in O'Connor's mold. "Justice O'Connor has been a voice of reason and moderation on the court," the Democratic leader said in a statement.
Bush has said he would consider either a woman or a minority to replace O'Connor, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' name has been mentioned.
As far as Roberts is concerned, it appears the only question left about his nomination is how many Democrats will vote for him to become the nation's 17th chief justice.
This week's four-day Senate confirmation hearings only confirmed for most of the Senate's Republicans that Bush's pick to succeed Rehnquist is an ideal choice.
Since Democrats say they don't plan to filibuster, they must decide if it's worth casting a symbolic vote against the 50-year-old Roberts, knowing they can't stop his confirmation and that Bush will soon choose a nominee to replace O'Connor.
There are 55 Republicans, 44 Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont in the Senate, and Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told reporters: "I think he can get from 75 to 80 votes."