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Alito nomination puts spotlight back on Senate's Gang of 14

WASHINGTON—The Senate's bipartisan Gang of 14, largely silent since it stopped a potentially destructive showdown over judicial nominations last spring, is back in the limelight thanks to Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, but the remarkable unity that gang members displayed then is showing signs of stress.

Some of the 14 senators are voicing unease over Alito, a 15-year veteran of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Others are impressed. At least one has all but endorsed Alito, dismissing a filibuster against him out of hand.

In the end, Alito's confirmation could be decided by this small breakaway group of senators, whose views will be influenced, variously, by their personal assessments of Alito, home-state politics and loyalty to Senate tradition.

The group plans to hold its first meeting since Alito's nomination Thursday.

The Gang of 14 coalesced last spring as the Senate headed toward a vote to outlaw filibusters—unlimited debate aimed at preventing a decisive vote—on judicial nominees. The gang's unity saved a hallowed Senate tradition of deliberative debate.

Under current rules, debate can be forced to end only when 60 of the 100 senators vote to do so. By banding together, the 14 were numerous enough to prevent either an effective filibuster or a move to outlaw them.

For now, the possibility that Alito's nomination might be blocked with a filibuster appears a long shot, so liberal groups that oppose Alito are looking for 51 votes to kill his confirmation outright. That would require at least six Republicans to break ranks and all 45 Democrats to stick together—difficult goals.

Failing that, opponents say, they'll try to hold at least 41 senators together for a filibuster that can't be shut off, and will work to defeat an expected Republican counterstrike to outlaw judicial filibusters.

"It's still too close to call," said Ralph Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that's out to defeat Alito. "The political environment is more favorable to us now. The president has been weakened considerably over the last six months."

The White House and its allies are targeting centrist Republican and Democratic senators, who are considered potential swing votes. So are Alito's opponents. Neither party's ranks are solid.

So far, Alito's nomination has drawn significant Democratic opposition, and moderates in both parties have voiced reservations, especially at his stance on abortion. As an appellate judge, he wrote a dissent upholding a provision in Pennsylvania law requiring that a woman inform her spouse before she had an abortion.

Four of the seven Republicans in the Gang of 14 support abortion rights.

"It does raise a concern," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of the four.

Any effort to filibuster Alito almost certainly would be met by a Republican attempt to end all judicial filibusters, a ploy known as "the nuclear option" that could be achieved with 51 votes.

The Gang of 14 is crucial in such a showdown. Without its seven Democrats, the Democratic leadership would be unable to get the 41 votes needed to sustain a filibuster. Without the group's seven Republicans, the Republican leadership would be unable to get the votes needed to outlaw judicial filibusters.

But the Gang of 14 is split on Alito.

By Wednesday's end, he had met with three of the group's members: Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He's scheduled to meet with three more—Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark.—on Thursday.

DeWine said Bush "had made a good pick."

"I can't imagine that a filibuster will be tried," DeWine said, adding that he'd vote for the nuclear option if Democrats filibustered.

Nelson said he was prepared to view Alito favorably, but hadn't made up his mind.

"He assured me that he wants to go to the bench without a political agenda," Nelson said.

Graham clearly favors Alito. "I believe we have another John Roberts," he said, referring to new Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Graham said he would oppose any filibuster based on ideology.

But Chafee, R-R.I., another group member, voiced deep misgivings about Alito.

"During the past 15 years, Judge Alito has taken many positions that appear to place him at odds with the protection of key fundamental rights," Chafee said in a statement.

McCain, R-Ariz., and John Warner, R-Va., two founders of the Gang of 14, have praised Alito, but both venerate the Senate's tradition of unfettered debate and have voiced hope that the gang can help avoid the nuclear option.

Six of the gang's members face re-election next year: Republicans Chafee, DeWine and Snowe; and Democrats Nelson, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

Chafee and DeWine face toss-up races, and this vote could be pivotal to them. Chafee's state, Rhode Island, went for Democratic Sen. John Kerry by a nearly 3-2 margin in last year's presidential election, and Chafee is one of the more liberal Republicans in the Senate. Bush won in Ohio, where DeWine is seeking re-election.

Alito's nomination may not reach the Senate floor until January. Until then, the campaigns for and against him will shape the political climate as senators—entering an election year—make final decisions on their stands.

"The pressure will be enormous," Graham said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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