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With Senate Democrats split evenly down the middle, Judge John Roberts Jr. was confirmed today as the nation’s 17th chief justice by a 78-22 margin. “He is the brightest of the bright,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said just minutes before the 11:30 a.m. roll call vote. All 55 Republicans and half of the chamber’s 44 Democrats voted to confirm the 50-year-old jurist, who has spent the past two years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who usually sides with Democrats on most issues, also voted to confirm Roberts. Roberts’ wife, Jane, was seated in the front row of the visitors’ gallery during the vote, along with Roberts’ mother, Rosemary, and a family friend. In an interview immediately after the vote, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) seemed genuinely pleased at the number of Democrats voting for Roberts, which was larger than many expected. “To get 23 votes out of 45 is terrific,” Specter said. Roberts is set to be sworn in as chief justice later this afternoon at the White House. Soon afterward, possibly as early as this evening, but almost certainly by early next week, President George W. Bush is expected to name a successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has often been a key swing vote on the Court. That nomination, more perhaps than Roberts’, could determine the ideological balance of the Court for years to come. “I’ve said it several times to the president: �Be a uniter, not a divider,’ ” said the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), who voted in favor of Roberts. Democrats say the split vote will also give the party far more credibility in the upcoming fight over O’Connor’s replacement, proving that the party does not unilaterally reject a nomination simply because it comes from a Republican president. “Democrats have shown we can be bipartisan here,” added Leahy, who announced his vote last week in a decision that surprised�and angered�many in his party. Added New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who voted against Roberts: “The down-the-middle vote showed we’re a diverse caucus. We don’t march in lockstep, and that’s very, very good.” The White House, as it did with Roberts, has kept its deliberations about the second nominee secret; speculation in the past week has ranged from longtime Bush friend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to another Texan, White House Counsel Harriet Miers. In between are all manner of federal appellate judges, such as the D.C. Circuit’s Janice Rogers Brown and the 5th Circuit’s Priscilla Owen, whom have already been filibustered by Senate Democrats. Democrats have repeatedly warned the White House that a nomination of any previously filibustered candidate will provoke another filibuster. “If it’s a true ideologue, we could well block the vote,” said Schumer. But, he added, “We will eagerly embrace a consensus nominee.” Although an agreement earlier this year between seven moderate Democrats and seven moderate Republicans makes a filibuster far more unlikely, Republicans could still counter any filibuster with the so-called nuclear option, a parliamentary move that would eliminate the procedure. If that happens, Democrats have previously vowed they would shut the Senate down. T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected]

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