Next week's confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice appears so certain that Republicans and Democrats turned increasing attention to President George W. Bush's choice to fill a second US Supreme Court vacancy.
At 50, the conservative appeals court judge stands to be put in position to mold American law for decades.
The Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the conservative judge's nomination Thursday on a 13-5 bipartisan vote. The five Democrats who voted no questioned Roberts' commitment to civil rights and worried that he might try to overturn the 1973 court ruling that established the right to abortion in the US.
"The values and perspectives displayed over and over again in his record cast doubt on his view of voting rights, women's rights, civil rights and disability rights," Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachussetts Democrat, said about the 50-year-old appeals court judge, who used to be a lawyer in the administration of Ronald Reagan.
The Democratic support for Roberts marked a stinging defeat for liberal groups lobbying energetically against confirmation, which is required by the Constitution. Without mentioning names, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois criticized them in remarks on the Senate floor, accusing them of "knee-jerk, unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks" on lawmakers who disagreed with them.
Even so, one prominent conservative said he was unimpressed with the level of bipartisanship.
"We're supposed to think the Democrats are being magnanimous? Give me a break," said Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society. He noted that several Supreme Court nominees of presidents of both parties have gained overwhelming bipartisan support in the past two decades.
The full Senate is to debate Roberts' nomination next week, with all 55 Republicans expected to support him. A final vote is expected Thursday, in enough time to allow him to succeed the late William Rehnquist and become the 17th chief justice before the court begins a new term on Oct. 3.
With Roberts' confirmation a certainty, several senators on the committee were looking ahead to Bush's selection of a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Roberts was his first choice, but when Rehnquist died Sept. 3, Bush quickly changed the nomination to the chief's chair.
Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee's Republican chairman, told reporters he thought the president might name a successor shortly after Roberts' confirmation. "He might wait until the following Monday, but seeing how President Bush operates, I think it will be sooner rather than later," he said.
Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, forecast a more contentious debate than Roberts has provoked, then speculated about the impact on the court if a third vacancy should occur next spring.