WASHINGTON—One month before the start of his confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court, Samuel Alito faces a much more hostile Senate than did the man who preceded him—Chief Justice John G. Roberts.
Yet despite considerable pressure from liberal groups to defeat Alito, Democrats have avoided sustained public criticism of him and seem almost allergic to any suggestion that they commit now to blocking his nomination with a filibuster. For now, they prefer to keep Republicans on the defensive over the war in Iraq and cuts in spending on the poor.
Opposition to Alito is extensive, far beyond what Roberts faced. Because Alito's conservative credentials are beyond question and his stands on controversial questions of law are more clear cut than Roberts' were, his backers assume that at least the 22 Democrats who voted against Roberts will be united against him—and probably more.
"This vote will be all of those and then some," said Wendy Long, counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network, which supports Alito's confirmation.
Both Republican and Democratic Senate aides believe that Alito could easily have more than 40 votes already lined up against him, but most aren't ready to declare publicly yet.
That would be enough to block Alito with a filibuster, the parliamentary tactic that requires 60 votes to end debate and force a vote. However, senators ready to vote against Alito may not support a filibuster to kill his nomination, for many see that as an extreme tactic.
Democrats are applying a different standard to Alito than they did to Roberts. As a replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the key swing vote on the high court, Alito is more likely than Roberts to change the court's ideological balance.
This week, the Supreme Court sharpened the stakes for Alito when it agreed to hear in March a case that challenges the validity of Texas' new congressional districts. The state's redistricting effort, spearheaded by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, resulted in the loss of five Democratic seats in the House of Representatives in 2004.
That case would be among the first that Alito would hear if confirmed early next year. And in a 1985 job application letter to the Reagan administration, Alito said he opposed congressional reapportionment decisions reached by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Democrats revere them.
This emerging issue adds a significant new political dimension to the debate over Alito's views on abortion, presidential power, civil rights and the role of government. Unlike Roberts, Alito has a long track record of controversial views. As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said recently: "There are more targets as to Judge Alito than there were as to Judge Roberts."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who voted against Roberts, has said that Democrats will not pass judgment on Alito until after his confirmation hearings. But Reid's staff has been distributing daily "Alito Alerts" to senators and opinion makers that highlight Alito's conservatism.
Meanwhile, conservative and liberal groups are aiming Internet, television and radio ads at fence-sitting senators.
Keith Appell, a Republican strategist helping to coordinate support for Alito, said conservatives are focusing on Democratic senators from states won by President Bush in 2004. That includes Democrats such as Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Ken Salazar of Colorado, and John Rockefeller and Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Liberal groups are targeting many of the same senators. They also are trying to influence moderate Republicans such as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
The liberal Alliance for Justice has organized a "Rolling Justice" campaign in which volunteers take their anti-Alito message to small towns. It's unclear how successful the strategy has been. On Sunday, the Daily Press of Craig, Colo., (pop. 9,000) noted the arrival of Rolling Justice volunteers in a 330-word article. The report said: "No one from Craig attended the meeting Friday, but with freezing temperatures, group members said they weren't surprised."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., warned against a filibuster on "Fox News Sunday," saying he would move to abolish all judicial filibusters through his own radical parliamentary maneuver, known as "the nuclear option."
"I think it would be against the intent of the Founding Fathers and our Constitution to deny Sam Alito an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate," Frist said.
Byrd, a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" senators who helped avoid a showdown over judicial filibusters over the summer, chided Frist in an hourlong exchange on the Senate floor.
"There's not going to be any filibuster against Alito," Byrd said.
Byrd then backed Frist into conceding that the Constitution doesn't require an up or down vote on judicial nominees.
"It is not in the Constitution," Frist said. "I'm saying the dignity of the institution to give advice and consent deserves an up or down vote."
Anti-Alito activists see it differently.
"The first question is (having) enough votes to win defeat," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "It's also important that the filibuster remain as an option on the table. The filibuster is there for a reason."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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