WASHINGTON -- The vote by Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to confirm Judge John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice surprised Bush administration officials. But it fit Democrats' Supreme Court grand strategy.
Leahy is not really at odds with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who came out against confirmation. Leahy opened the door for yes votes by Democratic senators (including two Judiciary Committee colleagues) who believe Roberts is going to be confirmed anyway. Reid's position puts the party formally in opposition to Roberts, satisfying People for the American Way and other anti-Roberts liberal activist groups.
A footnote: Speculation in legal circles is that federal Appeals Court Judge Priscilla Owen of Austin, Texas, will be named to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. But sources close to President Bush warn he has not made up his mind whether to pick a woman for the vacancy.
During a contentious closed-door conference of House Republicans last Tuesday in which the party leaders clashed with conservatives over federal spending resulting from Hurricane Katrina, universal high marks went to an outsider who addressed them: Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
An emotional Barbour described the havoc wrought by Katrina on the Gulf Coast and related instances of individual valor. The former Republican National chairman explained rebuilding efforts in Mississippi that he is leading. That orderly process contrasts, said GOP lawmakers, with the post-hurricane chaos in neighboring Louisiana.
A footnote: Barbour got high marks for naming former Netscape CEO James Barksdale to head Mississippi's rehabilitation effort. Barksdale, a Republican, opposed Barbour's election as governor in 2003 after Barbour, as a Microsoft lobbyist, attacked him in the antitrust case. But Barbour reached out to Barksdale after Katrina.
GOING AFTER BYRD
Republican leaders have a strong backup candidate to challenge Sen. Robert Byrd's election in West Virginia to a ninth term: former West Virginia University basketball coach Gale Catlett.
The GOP's first choice is still Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, but she has shown reluctance to run. Catlett remains a popular figure with instant recognition in West Virginia.
The 87-year-old Byrd, the Senate's senior member in both age and service, is a living legend in the Mountaineer state. But Republicans believe he is incapable of waging a vigorous campaign and would be vulnerable to a strong challenger. Catlett is 64 years old.
JOHN WARNER'S SUCCESSOR?
Influential Virginia Republicans are eyeing former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie as a possible successor to Sen. John Warner if the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman does not seek re-election in 2008 at age 81.
Gillespie, a former House GOP staffer, headed the Republican National Committee during the 2004 campaign and was a major national spokesman for the party. He currently is on leave from his own lobbying firm and working at the White House to shepherd Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to confirmation as chief justice.
Gillespie told this column he has not been approached for the Senate seat. Nevertheless, the New Jersey native is talked about as the best bet to succeed Warner.
BADLY TIMED PROTEST
The left-wing Working Assets sent protesters last Wednesday to heckle conservatives at their weekly meeting in downtown Washington at the offices of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). But they arrived too early and ended up heckling environmentalists and other workers starting their day.
Working Assets gave its demonstrators the starting time of "8:45 sharp." At that hour, they began marching and chanting at people who entered the large office building. Nearly all protesters left by 9:30 a.m., long before the conservatives showed up to attend a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m.
The people actually heckled were employees of the League of Conservation Voters and many other organizations housed in the building along with ATR. "We did what made sense to us, given people's work schedules," Working Assets spokesman Andrew Boyd told this column.