Dems fight over possible Alito filibuster


    Long-smoldering Democratic dissension flared openly Friday as
    liberals sought support for a last-minute filibuster of Supreme Court
    nominee Samuel Alito against the advice of leaders worried about a
    backlash in the 2006 elections.

    “I reject those notions that
    there ought to somehow be some political calculus about the future. …
    The choice is now,” said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the party’s
    2004 presidential candidate and a White House hopeful for 2008. He said
    it was imperative to fight for “those people who count on us to stand
    up and protect them.”

    Two of the party’s Senate leaders, Harry
    Reid of Nevada and Charles Schumer of New York, privately made clear
    their unhappiness with the strategy, even though they, too, oppose
    Alito’s confirmation. And Rep. Harold Ford, seeking a Senate seat in
    Republican-leaning Tennessee, dismissed the filibuster approach openly.

    “It
    does not appear that there is any reason to hold up a vote. I hope my
    colleagues in the Senate will move quickly to bring this process to a
    dignified end,” he said.

    Despite a decision by Kerry,
    Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and others to try to block a final
    vote, leaders of both parties agreed that Alito’s confirmation was
    assured for Tuesday. The 55-year-old appeals court judge would replace
    Sandra Day O’Connor, who has cast deciding votes in recent years in 5-4
    rulings on controversial issues such as abortion rights, affirmative
    action and the death penalty.

    Democrats fear he would shift the court rightward on those and other issues.

    Because
    of moves by Kerry, Kennedy and others, supporters of Alito’s nomination
    must produce 60 votes on Monday to advance his nomination _ and an
    Associated Press tally shows at least 62.

    That would clear the
    way for a final vote on Tuesday. The AP tally shows at least 53
    Republicans and three Democrats intend to vote to confirm Alito, well
    over the required majority.

    Reid announced he would side with
    Alito’s critics on Monday, though on Thursday he had made clear his
    unhappiness with their strategy. “There has been adequate time for
    people to debate,” he had said Thursday. “I hope this matter will be
    resolved without too much more talking.”

    Those remarks drew a
    pointed rebuttal from the NAACP and People for The American Way, two
    organizations that often work closely with Democrats in Congress. “With
    just two days of debate having passed, this must rank among the
    shortest debates for a controversial Supreme Court nomination in modern
    times,” they said in a written statement.

    Democrats have been
    arguing for several days whether to attempt a filibuster designed to
    keep Alito off the bench, according to officials familiar with the
    deliberations.

    These officials said both Reid and Schumer of New
    York, who heads the party’s effort to gain Senate seats in 2006, have
    stressed the drawbacks. Among them were the certainty of defeat, the
    impression of political weakness that would convey and the potential
    impact on candidates on the ballot in 2006 in Republican-leaning
    states. Both men oppose Alito’s confirmation.

    Israel Klein,
    Schumer’s spokesman, said late in the day Friday that the New York
    senator “has privately expressed some concerns about how to move
    forward procedurally, but he strongly opposes Judge Alito’s nomination
    and would support any attempts to keep him off the Supreme Court.”

    Sen.
    Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, sided with
    Kennedy, Kerry and others, contending Alito’s record was troubling
    enough to warrant a filibuster, and that in political terms, core
    Democratic voters would be energized by a last-ditch stand.

    Among
    the rank and file, there was opposition to a filibuster from several
    lawmakers, including liberal Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and North
    Dakota’s Kent Conrad, a moderate who is on the ballot this fall in a
    Republican state.

    Democratic officials said Mikulski had said
    during this week’s closed-door caucus that the 2006 and 2008 elections
    were more important than a symbolic last stand that would fail to
    prevent Alito’s confirmation. Her spokesman declined comment.

    The officials who described the comments did so on condition of anonymity, citing the private nature of the discussions.

    In
    an interview, Conrad said that in remarks to fellow Democrats at the
    caucus, he outlined several factors. These included Alito’s strong
    backing from the American Bar Association, his uncontested confirmation
    15 years ago to the appeals court, public opinion polls and the fact
    that Republicans had voted overwhelmingly to confirm Justices Ruth
    Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer when President Clinton nominated them.

    “So I put that all together and I find it makes it hard to justify a filibuster,” Conrad said.

    For
    the most part, Republicans were content to stand aside while Democrats
    aired their internal differences. But White House spokesman Scott
    McClellan couldn’t resist a jab at Kerry, Bush’s vanquished campaign
    rival from 2004.

    “I think even for a senator, it takes some
    pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski
    resort in the Swiss Alps,” he said.

    Kerry announced his support
    for a last stand against Alito from Switzerland, where he was attending
    the World Economic Forum. He flew home overnight to speak on the Senate
    floor.