WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. earned fresh plaudits from senators Tuesday, with two moderates -- a Democrat and a Republican -- expressing confidence that he did not appear eager to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in all U.S. states.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Alito told her he would respect precedent even if he disagreed with the original ruling.
"I was obviously referring to Roe in that question," Collins told reporters after meeting with Alito for about an hour. "He assured me that he has tremendous respect for precedent and that his approach is to not overturn cases due to a disagreement with how they were originally decided."
Alito also met privately with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who emerged from their discussion saying the veteran federal appeals judge had assured him that he considered Roe a precedent that "deserved great respect."
"He basically said ... that Roe was precedent on which people, a lot of people, relied, and had been precedent now for decades and therefore deserved great respect," Lieberman told reporters.
Lieberman and Collins said that Alito did not, however, go so far as to pledge to uphold the precedent set by Roe should a case on that topic come before the court.
Alito also earned praise from the Senate's leading abortion foe, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who met with Alito on Tuesday. Brownback said Alito did not discuss either abortion or a constitutional right to privacy -- which some see as the legal underpinning of the abortion decision.
"He did articulate that he thinks one should look at the Constitution as the document is set and try to interpret from that document, not trying to bring in things or seeing it as a living document," Brownback said.
Although he has a reputation as a conservative, Alito has so far generated little opposition in the Senate, which is scheduled to begin hearings on his nomination in January. Democrats, who could halt Alito's confirmation only if they launched a filibuster, so far have shown little appetite for resorting to the stalling tactic.
The ability to stage a filibuster would depend on support from members of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" -- a group of seven moderate Republicans and seven moderate Democrats -- who control enough votes to undermine a filibuster effort. Members from both parties have said they do not yet think Alito's nomination constitutes the kind of "extraordinary circumstances" that would trigger a filibuster.
Abortion rights advocates, who have expressed opposition to Alito, responded to the senators' remarks by arguing that the judge's words should give little comfort to senators who support legalized abortion.
"Clarence Thomas told the Senate that he respected precedent, then he voted to overturn Roe one year after he was confirmed to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court," Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. "That is why Americans can't take these reported statements at face value. If Alito's backers ... are so delighted with him, would he be so respectful of precedents and women's freedom if he is confirmed? "