Alito: Clear and Ominous

In a party-line vote that offered little suspense, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended on Tuesday that the full Senate confirm Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as the country's 110th Supreme Court justice.

Given that the committee's 10 Republicans had announced their support for Alito before the vote, and that a simple majority is needed to push a nomination through to the Senate floor, President Bush crowed on Monday that supporters "don't have to worry about [Alito] in the committee." The 10-8 vote took place after a one-week delay, allowed under Senate rules, which Democrats requested; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., termed the stay "unjustified and desperate partisan obstructionism."

Committee members gave very different opinions Tuesday on Alito's qualifications. "Every member of this committee agrees that Judge Alito is one of the most well-qualified nominees ever nominated to serve on the Supreme Court," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. But Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., countered that Alito's opinions suggest he would push the court rightward and demonstrate a "well-formed philosophy of limited rights and restricted civil liberties."

Now that the committee has voted, Republicans plan to begin debating Alito's nomination on the Senate floor Wednesday and are hoping for a confirmation vote on Friday. They're anxious to seat Alito before President Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 31, although Democrats could make that difficult with a long floor debate. With Alito's confirmation almost a given, however, Democrats are already turning most of their attention to charges of Republican corruption.

Several Democrats on the committee spoke out last week against the conservative 55-year-old Alito, who would succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate who has often been the court's swing vote. While Alito "responded to hundreds of questions [in his testimony], he adequately answered far too few of them," particularly those regarding the limits of a president's power, Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., in a speech to the Center for American Progress in Washington, called Alito's record "clear and ominous" and said the stakes for his confirmation "could not be higher."

But as Alito's nomination heads to the Senate floor, he is likely to win confirmation without a bruising filibuster fight. The committee's only woman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told "Face the Nation" last week that although she thinks Alito would most likely align himself with Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the court's most conservative member, "that doesn't mean he shouldn't be on the court."

Alito is expected to fall short of Chief Justice John Roberts' 78-22 confirmation, but he is likely to receive support from just about all of the chamber's 55 Republicans. Most of the 44 Democrats are expected to oppose him, with the exception of Nebraska's Ben Nelson, who announced his support for Alito last week. Conservative groups are targeting Democrats such as Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, both of whom backed Roberts and hail from states that Bush won easily in 2004.

Several other Democrats who supported Roberts, including Sen. Max Baucus of Montana and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, have announced that they will vote against Alito. Baucus said last week that Alito is "too far out politically of the mainstream of judicial thinking."

Democrats will likely use the upcoming Senate debate to build a public case against Alito on issues such as abortion, executive authority and affirmative action, which they were largely unable to do during his 18 hours of committee testimony. Kennedy complained last week that nomination hearings have become "stylized and choreographed appearances in which nominees are coached to say as little as possible."

Although Democrats tried to pin him down on specific positions, Alito offered mostly generalities instead. On the issue of abortion, for example, he said only that "there is a general presumption that decisions of the court will not be overruled," even though he argued in his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1991 case before his appellate court, that a pregnant woman should have to tell her husband that she planned to have an abortion. He also wouldn't answer how he would have voted in Bush v. Gore, the 2000 Supreme Court case which settled that year's contested presidential election.

Democrats' strategy of going after Alito's professional record on issues such as constitutional right to an abortion and the limits of executive power -- as well as his personal ethics as a member of a Princeton University alumni group that opposed admitting more women and minorities to the Ivy League school -- failed to generate much enthusiasm from the public. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted over the weekend showed support for Alito's nomination actually grew to 54 percent, up from 49 percent before his testimony.

The poll also showed that Democrats' concerns that Alito would overturnRoe v. Wade -- the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion that was decided 33 years ago on Monday -- did not gain traction with voters. Just 34 percent of those polled think Alito would overturn the ruling; 44 percent think he would uphold it.

Interest groups remained active leading up to Tuesday's vote. Progress for America, a conservative group backing Alito, spent almost $250,000 on an ad airing last week on FOX and CNN featuring two Democrats who support the appellate court judge.

IndependentCourt.org, a coalition of groups that oppose Alito, launched an ad after the hearings ended that highlighted Alito's statement that he would be "the same person" on the Supreme Court as he was for 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The ad noted that Alito voted on that court to uphold the strip search of a 10-year-old girl and would consider overturning Roe v. Wade.

The committee vote represents a victory for President Bush, who sought to convey a hands-on approach in helping to shepherd Alito through the Senate. Bush's second nominee to succeed O'Connor, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, underperformed in meetings with senators and eventually withdrew, an embarrassment for Bush at a time when he was battling low public approval numbers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Bush, who nominated Alito on Oct. 31, hosted him for breakfast before the hearings began and called to congratulate him when they ended. On Monday, Bush praised Alito as a "very, very smart, capable man." And First Lady Laura Bush called Alito's wife, Martha-Ann, to comfort her after she left the Senate room crying during the hearings.

With Alito likely headed toward confirmation, Bush's base will have succeeded, as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted when Alito wrapped up his testimony, in replacing O'Connor's vote with "a sure vote for their extreme agenda." Indeed, at a rally on Monday, opponents of abortion rights celebrated the idea that an Alito win would usher in a "post-Roe era," as one speaker called it. Given that Alito could serve on the court for decades to come, one wonders just how far right he'll push it -- and what kind of court he'll leave behind.

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