After Chafee backs Roberts, foes await NARAL's response

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I) has said that he will vote for John Roberts’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a move that could jeopardize his endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I) has said that he will vote for John Roberts’s nomination to the Supreme Court, a move that could jeopardize his endorsement from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“Absent anything unforeseen,” Chafee told The Hill last week, he would vote for Roberts to succeed the late William Rehnquist as chief justice of the United States. The senator reaffirmed his support of Roberts yesterday.

Although Chafee voted against the nomination of U.S. Circuit Court Judge Priscilla Owen, NARAL President Nancy Keenan blasted him June 8 for voting to confirm Janice Rogers Brown’s nomination to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“Given our recent conversations with Senator Chafee, this vote is surprising and extremely disappointing,” Keegan said in the release. “We’d like to know what pressure the Republican leadership put on him. We will be watching closely his future votes on judicial nominees, including William Pryor and those for the Supreme Court.”

Owen, Pryor and Brown were included in the “Gang of 14” deal that averted a floor vote on the so-called “nuclear option.” Chafee voted no on Pryor’s confirmation. 

NARAL, an abortion-rights organization, endorsed Chafee on May 20, stating, “We stand by our friends.” Chafee received a 100 percent rating on issues important to NARAL last year.

Asked if he was worried that NARAL would withdraw its endorsement, Chafee said he did not promise the group that he would oppose the president’s nominees to the high court.

He added, “I’m reliably pro-choice.”

Should NARAL pull its support, it could have implications on the 2006 race.

Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University, said what NARAL represents to Chafee carries more weight than the actual endorsement.

“Chafee’s strong suit is his support in the center of the political spectrum,” he said. “It would undermine his ability to make the case as a moderate in the Senate.”

NARAL did not return several calls for comment.

Maureen Moakley, professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, contended that while NARAL’s endorsement might matter in a close, low-turnout Republican primary it probably would not play a deciding factor in the general election.

Chafee faces a challenge from the right from Cranston, Rhode Island Mayor Steve Laffey.

If confirmed, Roberts would replace Rehnquist, a steadfast conservative who died earlier this month. Most political experts believe Roberts’s filling Rehnquist’s seat would cause little change to the ideological makeup of the court.

However, the nomination of a successor to centrist Justice Sandra Day O’Connor still looms. NARAL could opt to see how Chafee votes on that nomination before reaffirming or withdrawing its support of his reelection bid.

Former Rhode Island Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (D), one of the two Democrats vying to challenge Chafee in 2006, issued a statement last week opposing the Roberts nomination:

“I believe that nominees who go before the Senate for an appointment to the Supreme Court in this environment have an obligation to tell the American people where they stand on fundamental issues. John Roberts has not fulfilled this obligation.”

Matt Burgess, a spokesman for Rhode Island Secretary of State Matt Brown (D), who is also running, said that if NARAL decides to buck Chafee then Brown would court its endorsement.

“Matt has a strong record of standing up for a woman’s right to choose,” he said

Brown has indicated he would apply a litmus test to judicial appointments, vowing to oppose nominees who oppose abortion rights.

Asked by The Providence Journal in May why NARAL opted not to back Brown, Keenan said noted that Chafee has a record of tough votes, while Brown has no congressional voting record.

A recent Brown University poll has Chafee leading Whitehouse, his closest opponent, by 13 points.

Chafee has often sided with the administration on confirmation votes, approving of the nominations of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Attorney General Albert Gonzales and voting for cloture on John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Jonathan Allen contributed to this report.