Alito Strategy Depends on Selected Democrats

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Times Staff Writer

Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. launched his campaign Tuesday to court lawmakers who could prove crucial to his confirmation -- moderate Democrats such as Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who found himself near the top of the judge’s meet-and-greet list.

Johnson, who rarely attracts national attention, seemed to relish being the first Democrat outside the party’s leadership with whom Alito met. The senator was so far down Harriet E. Miers’ list of courtesy calls that she had withdrawn her nomination to the high court before their scheduled session.

“Judge Alito and I had a very thoughtful, substantive discussion this morning on a broad range of constitutional issues,” Johnson said in a statement. “I was his second stop of the day, and I’m honored that he was able to come to my office so early in the process.”


Johnson and other moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning states are key to the administration’s strategy of ensuring an up-or-down vote for Alito in the GOP-controlled Senate. Alito has scheduled more meetings with such lawmakers this week.

If Senate Republicans remain united in support of Alito, it would take just five Democrats backing him to prevent a filibuster -- a parliamentary procedure that kills a nomination by holding up a vote on it. If they can’t filibuster, Democrats would have to win over a substantial number of Republicans to defeat the confirmation of President Bush’s new nominee -- an unlikely proposition.

Senators spent much of Tuesday assessing the likelihood of a filibuster and decrying the pressure they are feeling from interest groups.

Progress for America, a conservative group that supports Alito’s nomination, launched a two-week, $425,000 television ad campaign on Fox and CNN on Tuesday. A spokeswoman, Jessica Boulanger, said the campaign was aimed at building opposition to a filibuster.

Lawyers for liberal interest groups, some of which already have announced opposition to the nomination, held a briefing for reporters in a Senate office building to lay out their concerns about Alito’s decisions and dissents in civil rights, abortion and commerce clause cases.

Such aggressive campaigning so early in the confirmation process distorts it, some senators complained.


“What bothers me is people taking sides before any of this basic work is done,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings on Alito. “Before everybody takes sides and begins shouting epithets, let the committee just do its work.”

She said she was put off by “the desire to go to war” that groups on both sides were displaying.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said: “There’s no doubt that there are many people on both sides who want to fight. That’s their principal objective: Gear up the troops, go out and raise money and justify your existence as a special-interest group.”

Some liberal Democrats have broached the prospect of a filibuster; Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, for instance, said the tactic was “on the table.”

Members of the so-called Gang of 14, the group of maverick Republicans and Democrats expected to play a pivotal role in the nomination, have been guarded in their comments about Alito and the prospects for a filibuster effort.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a founding member, said the group hoped to avoid a close vote on Alito that could put the spotlight on the lawmakers. “All of us in the gang hope that the gang has no role; that would mean that the nomination is successful,” he said.


But another of the group’s members, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said: “What we may face is a divisive, bitter debate.”

The group averted a showdown over judicial nominations in May by agreeing that they would block filibusters of federal judges in all but “extraordinary circumstances.” They also agreed to thwart any effort to change Senate rules to eliminate the minority’s right to mount such filibusters. Filibuster proponents need 41 votes in the 100-seat Senate to block a vote.

Republicans say that sidetracking judicial nominees with the filibuster, as Democrats have done with a handful of Bush’s nominees to the federal bench, is an improper use of the tactic. Some Republicans have warned that they would push for a vote to eliminate use of the filibuster for judicial nominees.

The Gang of 14 is scheduled to hold its first meeting on Alito’s nomination Thursday. Several members say they have made no decision on his confirmation or whether anything in his record would constitute the “extraordinary circumstances” that could trigger a filibuster.

Some GOP members of the group -- Collins, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- have expressed concerns about his record as a federal appeals court judge on abortion rights and other issues, but said they needed to learn more about him.

“Obviously, he certainly has the legal qualifications,” Snowe told reporters Tuesday. “But this is Chapter 1 of a very long book in terms of evaluating his record.”


Interest groups, Snowe said, have a role to play in the weeks to come, but they “ought to allow the Senate to conduct the process in the manner and the dignity and the integrity that it deserves.”