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Liberal Groups Vow to Dig In

By expanding the battle against Alito even though a filibuster is unlikely, Democrats hope to make the GOP pay in November.

January 13, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Liberal groups pledged Thursday to expand their uphill campaign against Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., saying this week's hearings provided fuel for a sustained lobbying effort against his confirmation.

Although opposition to John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's choice as chief justice, had largely fizzled by the end of his testimony in September, the reverse appears to have happened with Alito, who completed his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

"There is going to be a significant effort to defeat this nomination inside Washington -- but more importantly, outside Washington," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group leading the opposition to Alito.

Democratic senators, however, appear unlikely to enlist in an all-out effort by party activists to thwart the nomination.

Although Alito is expected to draw significantly more opposition than Roberts, party leaders seem unwilling to pursue a filibuster against him, which probably represents their sole option for blocking the nomination.

"Based on everything I've seen so far, while [a filibuster] is not out of the question, the more likely scenario is we try to maximize the 'no' votes and we try to build a case designed to highlight the differences between the two parties on key issues such as privacy and civil rights and women's rights," said a senior Senate Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity when discussing the party's strategy on Alito.

With Alito needing more than 50 votes for confirmation and Republicans holding 55 Senate seats, political analysts in both parties agree Alito is almost certain to attract majority support. That means the only way opponents could stop him would be to mount a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to stop.

Several Democratic strategists said even if the party did not attempt a filibuster, Democrats and their allies had strong incentives to oppose Alito more strenuously than they did Roberts.

One reason would be to discourage Bush from selecting a polarizing conservative if another vacancy opens on the court. Also, highlighting liberal concerns about Alito's views on issues such as abortion rights and the reach of presidential powers could cause difficulty in November's elections for some moderate Republican senators, such as Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, if they vote to confirm Alito.

"The question is how best to make some of these [moderate Republicans] pay a political price at election time," said the senior Democratic aide.

But Republicans are dubious that support for Alito will be a political liability in November. Jim Dyke, a GOP consultant advising Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Democrats were opening themselves to counterattack by resting much of their case against Alito on the charge that he would favor law enforcement over civil liberties, especially in the war on terrorism.

"I hope they continue to believe it," Dyke said.

Some liberal activists said they thought Alito provided them their best opportunity for attack by refusing to describe Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion nationwide, as "settled law."

It remains uncertain how extensive a campaign Alito's opponents can mount. Through the hearings, their advertising effort against him wasn't as large as expected.

But the main coalition opposing Alito, IndependentCourt.org, scheduled a news conference for today to unveil a new television ad that sources said would use comments made by the judge at the hearings. It will run on national cable channels.

Anything short of a filibuster against Alito could provoke tension between Senate Democrats and the groups allied with them.

Neas said the principal groups opposing Alito had not determined whether to recommend that Democrats try to filibuster his nomination.

But Ben Brandzel, advocacy director for the political action committee associated with MoveOn.org, said his organization would urge Democrats to do "what it takes" to block Alito, including a filibuster.

"Alito's record merits a filibuster," Brandzel said.

Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a conservative group that supports Bush's judicial nominees, said that he expected the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on Alito to break along party lines -- 10 to 8 -- and that he also anticipated "very close to a party-line vote on the floor."

"We expect it will be a tough fight all the way to the end, but we also expect that he'll come out on top," Rushton said.

Alito's nomination already has sparked debate in several Senate races -- most prominently in Rhode Island, where Chafee is being squeezed on both sides of the issue.

Chafee has yet to decide whether to support Alito, expressing doubts about the nominee's views on abortion and civil liberties.

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