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Alito Hearings Set for the New Year

Senators say they can't evaluate the Supreme Court nominee's record before Christmas, as Bush had requested.

November 04, 2005|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Resisting White House pressure, Senate leaders decided Thursday to delay confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. until after the holiday season, and begin the proceedings Jan. 9 with the aim of holding a confirmation vote Jan. 20.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said senators faced too much work evaluating Alito's long record as a federal judge to finish by Christmas, as President Bush had asked.

"That is not, in my judgment, practical or realistic," Specter said. "As Judge Alito has outlined himself, in 15 years he's decided about 250 cases a year, which multiplies out to 3,750 cases, and he has some 300 opinions. And that is a considerable amount of research to undertake."

The decision to wait until the new year assures that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will remain on the bench when the high court resumes deliberations Jan. 9 after a recess. Alito was nominated to succeed O'Connor, who is retiring but has agreed to stay on until her successor is confirmed.

"I agree with the chairman when he said it's far more important to do it right than fast," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's senior Democrat. "In this case, I suspect we're doing both."

The schedule will require senators to return early from their winter recess, but will permit them to take part in congressional travel delegations in December.

White House spokesman Steve Schmidt said he accepted Specter's decision. "The agreement today demonstrated bipartisan momentum to move this very important vote forward by Jan. 20," Schmidt said.

Alito is the third nominee Bush has proposed to succeed O'Connor, who announced her intent to retire in the summer. His first nominee, John G. Roberts Jr., was renominated and confirmed to succeed Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in September. The president's second nomination, of White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers, foundered under opposition from conservatives.

Senators of both parties have indicated that they do not intend to rush to make up their minds about Alito, a veteran federal appeals court judge from Trenton, N.J.

"I know the president wanted for us to have it done by the end of the year, but I never thought it was that realistic a time frame," said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) "Had Harriet Miers been given her day before the committee, she would have made it by the end of the year. When you change horses in midstream, you lose some time."

Pryor and other members of a group of centrist Democratic and Republican senators known as the Gang of 14 held their first meeting on the Alito nomination Thursday and decided it was too soon to judge whether opponents would be justified in launching a filibuster. A filibuster would probably be the Democrats' only hope to block Alito.

"There is an agreement that everyone is reserving judgment on all matters, that we are not at the point in time where we have enough information to be able to make decisions one way or another with respect to Judge Alito," said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.).

The group's seven Democrats and seven Republicans agreed in May that they would only permit a filibuster under "extraordinary circumstances." In the days since Alito was named, some Republican members of the group have said he does not appear to be the kind of nominee who would warrant a Democratic filibuster.

"Based on what we've seen so far, we didn't see extraordinary circumstances. We just don't," said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

But Republicans in the group made a point of standing by their Democratic allies in saying that no firm positions could be taken yet.

"I am obviously very favorably disposed toward his nomination," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who held Thursday's meeting in his office. "But the process that we set up, the 14 of us, is going to be followed -- and that is periodic meetings and evaluations."

Alito continued his meetings with senators Thursday, introducing himself to at least a dozen, some of whom dropped in on him informally from the Senate floor as they held a string of votes.

No Democrats have taken a public position on Alito.

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