Alito puts partisan fissure in spotlight

Trying to ease concerns that Judge Samuel Alito would overturn Roe v. Wade, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., right, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds up a poster from 1990 aimed at then-Supreme Court nominee David Souter, who has served on the high court for more than 14 years.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines on Tuesday to approve the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as senators turned the occasion into a broader and sometimes heated debate over the rancorous and partisan nature of the confirmation process.
Republicans threatened retaliation against future Democratic nominees, saying that Democrats had rallied party members to vote against Alito's confirmation for political reasons unrelated to his qualifications. Democrats said that a close vote would warn President Bush not to name such conservative judges.
Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court by a vote of the full Senate is now all but assured, probably by another vote roughly along party lines.
Recalling the overwhelming and bipartisan majorities that approved President Bill Clinton's Supreme Court nominees, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, several Republican senators said that their party had evaluated the qualifications of nominees in less ideological terms. They said that the Democratic opposition to Alito could alter the judicial confirmation process.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., warned: "So I say to my Democratic friends, think carefully about what is being done today. Its impact will be felt well beyond this particular nominee."
Democrats countered that the Bush administration had politicized the confirmation process by nominating a roster of staunch conservatives to the federal courts.
"It's a very different day and time" than during the Clinton administration's nominations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said. "There was not the polarization within America that is there today and not the defined move to take this court in a singular direction."
The committee vote, with all 10 Republicans voting to confirm and all eight Democrats voting to reject the nomination, sets the stage for equally contentious if predictable debate beginning today on the Senate floor. Many Democrats have indicated they are unlikely to seek to block the nomination with a filibuster, virtually guaranteeing that Alito will be confirmed by a majority vote.
Democratic leaders are nonetheless pushing for a prolonged debate over the nomination to make their case against Alito as a potential issue in the fall elections. And Democratic aides say privately that they also hope to hold off the final vote until Tuesday, when the president's State of the Union speech will overshadow the news.
Behind the public arguments about the importance of the courts and the confirmation process, strategists for both parties say they are planning to use the Senate vote as a political weapon in the midterm elections. Such elections are typically decided by the turnout of party loyalists, and such voters would most likely have passionate views on the Alito nomination.
Republicans are laying the groundwork to attack Democrats who vote against Alito as beholden to liberal interest groups. Democrats plan to make an issue of his votes on subjects like abortion rights or environmental regulations.
Speaking to reporters after the committee vote, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, argued that even if Alito was confirmed, the heavy Democratic opposition should send a message.
"I would hope it sends a message to the president that he should be more careful," Reid said. "I think it sends a message to the American people that this guy is not King George, he's President George."
Still, if Alito joins Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on the bench, Bush's two nominees will have put a substantial mark on the court. On many social issues, the court has been the biggest obstacle to the goals of conservatives in control of the other branches of government, and Alito would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who had been the pivotal vote.
Later, after his statement to reporters, Reid met privately with representatives of a coalition of liberal groups opposing Alito, an alliance that includes People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, organized labor, abortion rights and environmental groups.
Participants were forbidden to talk to the news media about the meeting, but Democratic aides briefed on it said officials of the groups made a last-ditch plea for the Democrats to stage a filibuster. People present said Reid agreed only that the Democrats would discuss their plans at a party meeting today.
Democrats, for their part, were already beginning to make an issue of Roberts' decisions on the court in explaining their opposition to Alito. Feinstein noted that in the recent Supreme Court decision Gonzales v. Oregon, involving an Oregon statute allowing doctor-assisted suicide, Roberts sided with the court's conservatives, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in finding that the Bush administration had the legal authority to use a controlled-substances law to block the statute.
Feinstein argued that Roberts' vote ran counter to some of his statements during his confirmation hearing about the idea that the court should stay out of "end-of-life" decisions. She quoted from his testimony: "The basic understanding is that it's a free country, and the right to be left alone is one of our basic rights."
Feinstein argued that Alito's record suggested he was also likely to join the same conservative faction of the court, especially on abortion rights.
"If one is pro-choice in this day and age, in this structure," Feinstein said, "one can't vote for Judge Alito. It is simply that simple."
Republicans said that making an issue of Alito's rulings would redound to their benefit, arguing that his legal views were more in sync with the American electorate than those of his liberal critics.
"I'll just tell you right now we welcome that debate on our side," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "We'll clean your clock."

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