WASHINGTON – While endorsing chief justice-to-be John Roberts on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee cast a critical eye on the next Supreme Court nomination.

Three Democrats voted for Roberts but said they might go the other way if President Bush chooses another conservative to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Republicans lamented the fact that five of the eight committee Democrats opposed Roberts, calling it a politicization of the nomination process that only figures to get worse.

“We’re already talking about the next nominee, in code,” said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the panel’s 10 Republicans, who unanimously backed Roberts.

The full Senate is expected to confirm Roberts next week, members of both parties said.

Since Roberts’ hearings last week, Senate Democrats have ruled out a filibuster and wrestled with his inevitable confirmation.

Some Democrats suggested the party whip up a heavy vote against Roberts, congressional aides said, to show the White House they would be able to muster the 41 votes needed to filibuster a future nominee.

Other Democrats said that, by voting for Roberts, Democrats could blunt GOP accusations of obstructionism and be in a better position to oppose a nominee.

Should Bush’s next nominee be filibustered, Republican officials said they might again seek to change Senate rules to eliminate the procedure on judicial nominees.

Bush could announce his second nominee as early as next week, officials said.

Some noted that Bush initially nominated Roberts to replace the more moderate O’Connor, often the swing vote in close cases. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died over Labor Day weekend, Bush nominated him for the top spot.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., one of the three Judiciary Committee Democrats who voted for Roberts, noted that he would not change the ideological balance of the court in replacing the conservative Chief Justice Rehnquist.

“It is my hope that the White House recognizes this concern when they choose the next nominee” for the O’Connor slot, Kohl said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking Democrat on the committee, also voted for Roberts but urged the White House to consult more on the next nominee.

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., while hailing Roberts’ qualifications, said he wished he had been more forthcoming during the hearings.

“Future nominees who refuse to answer reasonable questions, or whose documents the administration – any administration – refuses to provide, should not count on my approval,” Feingold said.

Republicans chided the five Democrats who opposed Roberts, noting that President Clinton’s high court nominees won huge Senate majorities.

“Politics is rearing its head like it has not done before,” Graham said.

Democrats said conservatives in recent years have made a determined effort to take control of the Supreme Court, restricting issues like abortion and affirmative action.

“The court’s balance may be, for decades, tipped radically in one direction,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

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