Filibuster Option Is in the Democrats’ Arsenal

Times Staff Writers

Democrats began gearing up Monday for a high-stakes fight over federal appellate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court but stopped short of threatening to filibuster President Bush’s pick.

Democrats and Republicans predicted that Alito’s fate would probably be decided by the so-called Gang of 14 -- senators from both parties who cobbled together a compromise in May that averted a showdown over judicial nominees.

“There is a potential for the Gang of 14 to perform a pivotal -- if not decisive -- role,” Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a member of the group, said in a statement supporting the nomination.

Privately, senior Democratic staff members doubted that the seven moderate Democrats in the Gang of 14 would consider Alito’s strongly conservative record -- or the fact that his ascension to the court could tip its balance -- as the sort of extraordinary circumstances that would allow them to support a filibuster.

“I don’t think Democrats are going to say filibuster unless they are sure they want to filibuster and they have the votes,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.


The Gang of 14, which includes seven Republicans, agreed that except in “extraordinary circumstances,” they would neither support filibusters of judicial nominations nor back a Senate rules change to eliminate the filibuster.

Unless they can break the group’s unity, Democrats would be unable to muster the 41 votes they would need for a filibuster, a parliamentary procedure that blocks a vote by preventing an end to debate.

As Alito visited senators from both parties on Capitol Hill, interest groups prepared for the sort of fight that could pressure his opponents to filibuster.

“This is maybe the most controversial, most important Supreme Court nominee since [Robert] Bork and [Clarence] Thomas,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way.

If efforts to persuade senators from both parties to vote against Alito fail, Neas said, then “yes, we would support the senators using any parliamentary option at their disposal, including filibuster, to defeat this nomination.”

Bork was nominated by President Reagan to the Supreme Court in 1987.

Bork’s failed confirmation was one of the most bitter in Senate history. Thomas’ successful nomination by President George H.W. Bush provoked months of argument.

By Monday afternoon, the American Conservative Union had asked its members to help raise $200,000 in 14 days to launch a campaign to win Alito’s confirmation.

“We cannot allow the liberals to win,” the group urged supporters.

Among Republicans in the Gang of 14, most generally expressed support for Alito. At least two -- Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- said they had seen no extraordinary circumstances in Alito’s record that would allow them to support a filibuster.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who is not a member of the group, said the judge’s record “hardly measures up to the standard the Gang of 14 had of extraordinary circumstances.”

Specter met with Alito for more than an hour Monday. He said he had not decided when the committee would hold confirmation hearings.

Among Democrats in the Gang of 14, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas said he needed to know more about Alito before saying whether the nominee might face a filibuster.

Pryor said Bush should have consulted the Senate more before choosing Alito. He noted that Karl Rove, the White House’s deputy chief of staff, had called him before Bush nominated Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice, and again before the president nominated Harriet E. Miers. He learned of Alito’s nomination on his car radio, Pryor said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another member of the Gang of 14, said Alito should have a “fair and thorough hearing.”

Nelson said that he had talked to several members of the Gang of 14. “The consensus has been, ‘Let the process work.’ It’s too early to come to any conclusions,” he said.

Nelson said he hoped that no filibuster would be threatened, but if it was, “The Gang of 14 will serve as a safety valve to take a look at the situation.”

The group plans to meet Thursday.

Even as Democrats held back, some Republicans predicted the minority party would use the filibuster. They said they were prepared to change the Senate rules to take away that right if Democrats used it.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that although “every conservative in America ought to be pretty tickled with this nominee,” he feared Armageddon in the Senate.