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Senate Panel to Vote on Chief Justice Nominee Thursday

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Thursday to send the nomination of Judge John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the United States to the full Senate for confirmation. The vote is not expected to be unanimous.

On the eve of the committee action, the panel's top Democrat, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, announced his support for Judge Roberts, even though he still has some questions about the nominee's judicial philosophy.

But in a speech on the Senate floor, Senator Leahy called Judge Roberts a man of integrity, and said he would take the nominee at his word that he does not have an ideological agenda.

"In my judgment, in my experience, but especially in my conscience I find it is better in this nomination to vote yes than no," he said.

But shortly after Senator Leahy spoke, Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, announced that he would oppose the nomination.

"Based on the record available, there is clear and convincing evidence that Judge Roberts' view of the rule of law would narrow the protection of basic voting rights," he said. "The values and perspectives displayed over and over again in his record cast large doubts on his view of the validity of laws that remove barriers to equal opportunity for women, minorities, and the disabled. His record raises serious questions about the power of Congress to pass laws to protect citizens in matters they care about."

But with 10 Republicans on the 18-member committee, a vote to approve Judge Roberts is virtually assured. The panel's chairman, Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, announced his support for the nominee earlier in the week.

"It is my judgment that he is well-qualified, and should be confirmed as the next Chief Justice of the United States," said Mr. Specter.

Confirmation by the full Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans, is expected next week, even though a number of Democrats, including Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, have announced their opposition to the nominee. Judge Roberts would succeed the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

With confirmation proceedings for Judge Roberts winding down, President Bush met with Senate leaders at the White House Wednesday to begin consultations on a nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

A much tougher battle is expected over this nominee because Justice O'Connor has often cast the deciding vote on the sharply divided court on a number of controversial cases.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said he urged President Bush to announce his choice to succeed Justice O'Connor within the next 10 days in hopes of having the nominee confirmed by the Thanksgiving Day holiday in late November.

With a new high court session to open October 3, Justice O'Connor has said she would remain on the bench until her replacement is seated.