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 yesterday.
The meeting, to be held Wednesday, signals that the White House is moving to find a successor to O'Connor as Judge John G. Roberts Jr. awaits confirmation as chief justice.
Bush invited Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, and minority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, as well as Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's senior Democrat, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose the invitations.
One official said the White House has begun making phone calls to key senators to get their views on finding a replacement for O'Connor.
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's nomination was pending in the Senate when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died 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's confirmation is virtually assured, following hearings that ended Thursday. Roberts, 50, a former Reagan administration lawyer, is an appeals court judge based in Washington.
The meeting -- and others likely to follow -- allow the White House to say that Bush was consulting with the Senate before announcing his nominee. The administration has said Bush and his aides reached out to most senators before the president settled on Roberts when he was originally nominated to succeed O'Connor.
Yet while consulting with senators, the White House has made the point that 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 last 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," he said in a statement.
Bush has been prodded to name either a woman or a minority to replace O'Connor, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's name has been mentioned.
Specter, appearing on television last weekend, urged the president not to name Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic on the high court.
As far as Roberts is concerned, the only real question left about his nomination is how many Democrats will vote for him to become the nation's 17th chief justice.
This week's grueling four-day Senate confirmation hearings only confirmed for most of the Senate's majority Republicans their contention that Bush's pick to succeed Rehnquist is an ideal choice.
Since Democrats do not plan to filibuster, they must decide whether it is worth casting a symbolic vote against Roberts, knowing that they cannot stop his confirmation and that Bush will soon choose another conservative to replace O'Connor, a swing vote on the court.
Reid has asked his Democratic caucus members not to make a decision before a closed-door meeting Tuesday, but Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, said he thinks about half of them ultimately will vote to confirm Roberts. The first Roberts vote will be Thursday in the Judiciary Committee.