Senate Democrats appear certain to focus on ideology in hearings on the Supreme Court nominations of Justice William H. Rehnquist and Judge Antonin Scalia, but they concede that confirmation appears likely--although not by the end of next month, the Administration's goal.
Aides to several Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will conduct the hearings, predicted that the strong conservative bent of both men will be closely examined, despite expectations that Republicans will object on the grounds that the President has the right to nominate persons who share his views on the law.
"We expect there'll be some concern within the committee over whether these nominees have views within the constitutional mainstream," said one aide, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "Most people believe the President should get his choice, as far as basic philosophy goes. But, if someone doesn't have constitutional values within a certain consensus, then the Senate committee has a role to play."
An aide to another Democratic member said: "We're going to be looking at where they stand--whether they're beyond the mainstream of American jurisprudence." But such an examination, he acknowledged, is likely to be "abstract--not a conflict-of-interest matter that gets the juices flowing."
Nevertheless, one Democratic member of the committee, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, described President Reagan's elevation of Rehnquist, the court's most conservative member, to chief justice as "a safe decision" and acknowledged that "in all likelihood" he will be approved by the committee and the full Senate.
Praise for Nominees
Elated by wide praise for both nominees' legal scholarship and competence, a Justice Department spokesman said he thought the paper work required to begin confirmation proceedings will be submitted to the committee by Friday.
"You can be sure the FBI checks will be done in a hurry," said Patrick S. Korten, the department's deputy director of public affairs. Both nominees underwent FBI investigations when they were put on the bench--Rehnquist in 1971 and Scalia in 1982, when Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here.
Timing of any Senate action is important because Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's resignation is effective on July 10, and the nominations conceivably could get caught up in the politics of an election year.
The Senate is expected to begin its Independence Day recess next week, returning on July 14. It then has scheduled an Aug. 15 to Sept. 8 summer recess.
Meanwhile, details emerged Wednesday of the role played by former White House counsel Fred F. Fielding in arranging a May 27 meeting with Reagan for Burger, in which the chief justice related his desire to retire. In addition, sources said, Fielding and Burger themselves met for several hours on May 24, apparently to discuss the matter.
"I can assure you I was not sent as an emissary by the White House," Fielding said Wednesday. He said that Burger had called him at his law firm on May 22, asked him to arrange a meeting with Reagan and said he wanted to discuss the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. In announcing his retirement Tuesday, Burger said he wanted to devote full time to serving as chairman of the commission for that celebration.
After the session with Reagan had been arranged, Fielding said, Burger invited him to his home on May 24. However, Fielding would not disclose what the two men discussed at that meeting. Their contacts go back to the Administration of Richard M. Nixon, when Fielding was deputy White House counsel and Burger was appointed chief justice.
When asked if the May 24 session was soul-searching, Fielding responded: "You'll have to characterize it."
Question About Timing
Burger, at the White House announcement Tuesday, brushed aside a question as to whether his retirement was timed to allow Reagan to appoint his successor. "If that had been my desire, I had quite a bit of time to wait here," he noted.
Although senators and their aides said that they expected eventual confirmation, spokesman for civil rights and liberal organizations expressed concern over the Rehnquist and Scalia nominations and over how thoroughly they would be examined.
Julius L. Chambers, director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the organization is "extremely concerned" over the implications of the nominations for civil rights groups. He asserted that Rehnquist had shown "implacable hostility" to advancing the civil rights of minorities and women and that Scalia holds "extremely conservative" views.
No 'Rush to Judgment'
And Anthony T. Podesta, president of the liberal lobbying group People for the American Way, cautioned that the Senate "must not rush to judgment on nominees at any level within the federal judiciary, but most particularly at the highest level."
Meanwhile, White House and Justice Department sources said that Judge Robert H. Bork of the U.S. Court of Appeals here--who had been considered the front runner for any Supreme Court vacancy--heads the list of possibilities if another opening should occur before Reagan leaves office.
One source said that Bork had been told this on Tuesday, but Bork would not comment Wednesday.
Staff writer Eleanor Clift contributed to this story.