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Senate Panel's Vote on Alito Is Put Off

Judiciary Committee Democrats seek more time to deliberate over the Supreme Court nominee before the full chamber weighs in.

January 14, 2006|Maura Reynolds and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats decided Friday to delay for a few days a Judiciary Committee vote set for early next week on the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

The Democrats asked for more time for debate among themselves, a move that would give Alito's opponents more time to make their case inside and outside Washington. Still, the federal appellate court judge is expected to win confirmation in a vote by the full Senate.

Democrats have the right to postpone the committee vote -- which had been scheduled for Tuesday -- for as much as a week. Aides to Senate Democrats said the delay would probably be less than that.

The committee heard testimony Friday from its final witnesses on Alito and then adjourned, as interest groups conducted news conferences and stepped up advertising campaigns in an effort to build support for the nominee, or opposition to him.

Liberal activists oppose Alito, fearing he will tip the court to the right and provide a key vote for rulings that, in their view, would endanger personal liberties.

Conservative activists support Alito because they think he will help curb decisions on social issues such as the right to an abortion, and perhaps overturn them.

Democrats peppered Alito with questions during his three days of testimony before the judiciary panel this week, and several expressed chagrin that the judge refused to say that he accepted as "settled law" the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion nationwide. Republican committee members, most of whom oppose abortion rights, praised Alito for his answers on this and other subjects.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said Friday that he and other Democrats on the committee wanted to delay the vote on sending Alito's nomination to the full chamber so that more party members could discuss the matter.

Leahy said many Democratic senators would be away from Washington until Wednesday.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said, "We want members to have a chance to deliberate together before going forward."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has been under pressure from the White House to complete the confirmation process as rapidly as possible, expressed irritation at the postponement.

"I do not know what reason there is for any delay," Specter said. "I think we know how the vote in committee is going to come out. And we ought to go to the floor and debate it on the floor."

The committee vote is expected to break along party lines, with its 10 Republicans backing Alito and its eight Democrats opposing him.

Specter, a moderate who supports abortion rights, officially announced Friday that he would vote for Alito.

A final floor vote on Alito had been planned for next Friday. Now, it might be as much as a week later.

As the vote nears, both sides have intensified campaigns targeted at moderate senators who are regarded as swing votes, such as Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan . Both Maine lawmakers support abortion rights.

An anti-Alito newspaper ad that ran in Maine on Friday said, "Voting to confirm Alito will be another example of Maine's senators saying they're moderate in Maine while loyally following President Bush's extreme agenda in Washington."

Petitions opposing Alito's confirmation were dropped off this week at Snowe's office, and an anti-Alito rally is planned for today in Portland, Maine. The Sierra Club has been airing a radio ad in the state saying that Alito's confirmation would threaten the environmental legacy of the late Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine).

On the other side, Progress for America, a pro-Alito group, began a national television ad campaign Friday that assails "liberal attacks" on the judge. And the National Pro-Life Alliance has run newspaper and TV ads in several states, including Maine, urging residents to call their senators and ask them to support Alito.

Steve Antosh, general manager of the alliance, said the group also had set up phone banks that were seeking to drum up support for Alito. "It's too soon to let up the heat," Antosh said. "There's so much at stake here."

It appears the only way Senate Democrats could block Alito's confirmation would be to mount a filibuster. Although some party activists are calling for one, Senate Democratic leaders have shown little enthusiasm for the idea, in part because it could create problems for party members facing reelection in Republican-leaning states.

"The fact is that a filibuster would put moderate Democrats from 'red' states and others up for reelection in a difficult position," said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing the party's strategic thinking on the Alito nomination.

In addition, more members of the so-called "Gang of 14," an informal group of moderate Republicans and Democrats who formed this year to oppose filibusters of judicial nominees except under "extraordinary circumstances," indicated Friday they were unlikely to support one in Alito's case.

A spokeswoman for Collins said the lawmaker did not think a filibuster was justified, even though Collins had yet to say how she would vote on Alito.

Another Gang of 14 member, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), "does not see any extraordinary circumstances" that would warrant a filibuster, a spokeswoman said.

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