Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. has signaled he would be highly reluctant to overturn long-standing precedents such as the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion rights ruling, a move that has helped to silence some of his critics and may resolve a key problem early in the Senate confirmation process, several senators said yesterday.
In private meetings with senators who support abortion rights, Alito has said the Supreme Court should be quite wary of reversing decisions that have been repeatedly upheld, according to the senators who said it was clear that the context was abortion.
"He basically said . . . that Roe was precedent on which people -- a lot of people — relied, and been precedent now for decades and therefore deserved great respect," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) told reporters after meeting with Alito yesterday. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she had a similar conversation about an hour later with Alito, who has made clear that he personally opposes abortion.
"I asked him whether it made a difference to him if he disagreed with the initial decision but it had been reaffirmed several times since then," Collins told reporters. "I was obviously referring to Roe in that question. 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."
Collins, Lieberman and others cautioned that they did not directly ask Alito if he would vote to overturn Roe , and that his comments should not be seen as a guarantee of how he may rule. But the conversations appear to be building Alito's resistance to what might be the biggest impediment to his confirmation: liberals' claims that he is a threat to legalized abortion, which most Americans support, according to opinion polls.
As a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights, Collins is viewed as pivotal to any serious bid to block Alito. She is a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 14," which has agreed to oppose a filibuster unless the nomination involves "extraordinary circumstances." After meeting with Alito, Collins said: "At this point, I see no basis for invoking 'extraordinary circumstances' and for anyone to mount a filibuster."
Her comments came as some key Democrats also said they saw slim chances for a filibuster, in which 41 senators can keep a question from coming to a vote. Republicans hold 55 of the Senate's 100 seats.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a former Judiciary Committee chairman, said this weekend that "my instinct is we should commit" to an up-or-down vote on Alito.
The nominee's well-received meetings with senators, and his ability to calm the concerns of pro-abortion-rights legislators, have largely quieted discussions of Alito in a Capitol more consumed by indictments of prominent Republicans, the war in Iraq and the treatment of terrorist suspects. At yesterday's weekly news briefing by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and his lieutenants, Alito was not mentioned.
Several Republicans who oppose abortion rights said they are not alarmed by Alito's comments because they believe he is a conservative who will base his decisions on the Constitution and the law, standards they can live with. "I think pro-choice Republicans are feeling more and more comfortable that whatever stand he takes on the Roe issue will be driven by the law, not ideology," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. "He's a strict constructionist," Graham said, and that's all conservatives want.
Some Democrats privately say it will be very difficult to block Alito's confirmation, but others say liberal activists have decided to shift the fight away from Washington for the next several weeks, hoping to build grass-roots momentum that would peak when the Judiciary Committee hearing begins on Jan. 9.
Liberal advocacy groups are targeting voters in states with moderate Republican and Democratic senators. They have collected a half-million signatures on petitions opposing Alito, launched TV ads and are coordinating forums aimed at highlighting Alito's legal views that their polling has found are least popular among voters.
Among them are Alito's support of a Pennsylvania law that required married women to inform their husbands before getting an abortion; rulings that would have made it more difficult for workers to pursue discrimination suits; and his belief that the Constitution does not grant Congress the power to restrict the sale of machine guns at gun shows. The strategy is aimed at casting Alito as a judicial extremist imposed on President Bush by mutinous members of his conservative base who also forced the withdrawal of White House counsel Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court.
"Contact your senators," intones an ad being run by the liberal People for the American Way. "Tell them the court belongs to all of America, not to the radical right."
The activists tried to play down any progress Alito is making in creating a favorable impression during his rounds on Capitol Hill, saying they hope only to keep pressure on senators to remain open-minded until the hearing, during which they believe Alito's fate will be decided.
"In most cases, a candidate enjoys a honeymoon period after the nomination," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, which was instrumental in torpedoing Robert H. Bork's 1987 Supreme Court nomination. Next week, the alliance plans to launch a multi-pronged campaign against Alito, which will include television ads and a wide range of grass-roots events.
"I think right now what you're looking at is not whether or not the opposition will build or exist, but rather when that opposition will be announced with sufficient critical mass to indicate the battle has been joined," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "This is in the process of developing."
Given that confirmation hearings are two months away, Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, said his plan is to slowly marshal opposition to Alito. He pointed out that the opposition that derailed Bork and nearly did the same to Clarence Thomas coalesced just before their respective hearings.
"I wouldn't put too much stock in the first week of courtesy calls," Neas said.