WASHINGTON — Die-hard Democratic critics of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito on Thursday made plans to prevent a vote on his confirmation, and Republicans countered with a move designed to force his approval by early next week.
“It is time to establish an end point” in the debate over President Bush’s selection to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.
Democrats’ concern over Alito’s nomination has been heightened because he would replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has been the swing vote on 5-4 rulings that maintained abortion rights, preserved affirmative action and limited the application of the death penalty.
Conservatives agree that Alito could push the court to the right, but they welcome the prospect.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, is cutting short a trip to Switzerland to fly back to Washington Friday to lead the filibuster effort. A filibuster, or endless debate, would stop Alito from ever getting a vote and would effectively kill his nomination.
But centrist Democrats such as Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado and Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana have said they oppose a filibuster of Alito, and it seems very unlikely Kerry could persuade 40 other Democrats to support one.
Earlier Thursday, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois — the party’s chief vote counter — told an audience at the National Press Club it was “highly unlikely” that a filibuster would succeed.
Under Senate rules, 41 senators are needed to keep a filibuster going. A vote on ending debate on the nomination is set for Monday afternoon, with a final vote on the nominee set for Tuesday morning.
“I don’t think that a filibuster is worth trying under these circumstances,” Salazar said Thursday afternoon before word of Kerry’s trip back from Switzerland was announced. “I don’t think a filibuster here will ultimately prevail.”
But despite opposing a filibuster, Salazar said Thursday he would vote against Alito’s confirmation.
As of Thursday night, three Democratic senators have said they will vote for the Alito nomination, so he has more than the 51 votes he needs to be confirmed.
“The amount of political energy that would be consumed in a fight over the filibuster followed by the fight over the ‘nuclear option’ would very much distract the Congress from the business it should be doing,” Salazar said. “I think we need to move on” to other matters, he said.
Under the so-called nuclear option, touted last year by Frist, the Senate would vote to abolish filibusters of judicial nominees.
Kerry was in Davos, Switzerland, Thursday to give a speech at the World Economic Forum, but planned to fly back to Washington early Friday morning, cutting short his trip to Europe.
One former Kerry adviser urged Democrats to back Kerry.
‘Most extreme nominee’
“There’s a very real chance to get those 41 votes,” said former Kerry campaign strategist Bob Shrum on MSNBC’s “Hardball.” Shrum called Alito “the most extreme nominee to the Supreme Court since Clarence Thomas” and added, “When you have that kind of a guy, if you can’t use the filibuster then, you can’t use it any time.”
Activists on the left wing of the Democratic Party have been urging Senate Democratic leaders to use the filibuster to stop Alito.
Said Ben Brandzel, advocacy director of Moveon.org, “The message we don’t want Democratic senators to send is, ‘We didn’t want Alito on the Supreme Court — but we weren’t willing to do the things necessary to stop him.’”
In statements e-mailed Thursday night by his campaign committee and by his Senate press office Kerry confirmed that he was leading the filibuster effort.
Alluding to his loss to Bush in the 2004 election, Kerry said, “People can say all they want that ‘elections have consequences.’ Trust me, I understand. But that doesn't mean we have to stay silent about Judge Alito's nomination.”
He said, “We have every right — in fact, we have a responsibility — to fight against a radical ideological shift on the Supreme Court.”
“For Sen. Kerry, this is very much a matter of conscience and principle. This is about the kind of America we will have. This is very much a fight worth having,” said April Boyd, Kerry’s spokeswoman.
Kerry’s fellow Massachusetts senator, Sen. Edward Kennedy said he, too, would try to filibuster Alito’s nomination.
Kennedy said, “The nominee is deficient in his commitment ... to individual rights, individual liberties, women’s rights and racial equality.” The senator conceded he faced an “uphill climb” in the effort to block confirmation but said it was possible.
Praise from Bush
Bush praised Alito during a news conference Thursday. “He understands the role of a judge is not to advance a personal and political agenda,” Bush said. “He is a decent man. He’s got a lot of experience and he deserves an up or down vote in the Senate.”
The confirmation debate on the Senate floor continued Thursday, but Republicans and the White House are so confident that Alito will be approved by the Senate that they’ve already started congratulating him and sending up new lower-court nominations for senators to consider.
A few hours after senators started debating his nomination Wednesday, Alito met with Frist, Majority Whip Mitch McConnell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter in a U.S. Capitol room that directly faces the neighboring Supreme Court.
The conservative judge shook their hands and joked with the Republican leaders and thanked them for their efforts. Alito, who had met privately with more than 80 senators since Bush nominated him in October, also thanked “all of the senators who supported me and were kind enough to meet with me.”
Democrats continued to warn that Alito’s nomination would put individual rights and liberties in danger. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the only woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Alito will join justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia in the court’s conservative wing and apply “originalist” interpretations to court decisions.
“If an originalist analysis was applied to the Fourteenth Amendment, women would not be provided equal protection under the Constitution, interracial marriages could be outlawed, schools could still be segregated and the principle of one man, one vote would not govern the way we elect our representatives,” Feinstein said.
Twenty-nine senators — including Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln, Carl Levin, Daniel Inouye, Joseph Lieberman and Jeff Bingaman as well as independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont — have said they will vote against Alito. Twenty-two Democrats voted against conservative Chief Justice John Roberts last year.
If the pattern continues, Alito may be on his way to the most partisan Senate victory for a Supreme Court nominee in years. The closest vote in modern history is Thomas’ 52-48 victory in 1991, when 11 Democrats broke with their party and voted for President George H.W. Bush’s nominee.
MSNBC.com’s Tom Curry and the Associated Press contributed to this report.