Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court, is expected to clear his first congressional hurdle today when the Senate Judiciary Committee votes to recommend his confirmation -- setting the stage for consideration in the full Senate as early as this week.
Each vote is expected to divide largely along party lines. The Judiciary Committee's 10 Republicans are likely to vote to support the federal appeals judge, while the panel's eight Democrats appear likely to oppose him.
As the full Senate prepares to consider the nomination, advocacy groups on both sides are conducting targeted television and radio ad campaigns in an effort to move a few votes one way or the other -- although confirmation appears all but certain.
In the past, a party-line vote in committee was seen as a signal of a possible filibuster, the only means by which minority Democrats could block confirmation in the Republican-controlled chamber. However, Democrats have indicated that they are unlikely to resort to a filibuster to block Alito, fearing a voter backlash against Democratic senators from more conservative states.
One of those is Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the only Democrat so far to announce that he will vote to support Alito. At least three Republicans appear be considering a negative vote: Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, both from Maine, and Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island.
Only a simple majority of the Senate's 100 members is required for confirmation, and Republicans hold 55 seats.
A Gallup poll released Monday for CNN/USA Today suggested that the Judiciary Committee hearings slightly increased the public's support for Alito's confirmation. According to the poll, 49% of respondents favored his confirmation before the hearings, and 54% favored it afterward. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), under pressure from the White House, is pushing to hold a confirmation vote on or before Jan. 31, when President Bush will deliver his annual State of the Union address.
Frist's spokeswoman, Amy Call, said a vote could come Friday, Saturday or over the weekend.
"He is committed to finish it by the State of the Union and he will do what it takes to get it done," Call said.
But Democrats, who have already delayed the committee vote by a week, will try to put the final vote off as long as possible, perhaps into next week.
"Democrats are not going to be rushed into anything," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the leader of the Senate Democrats. "This is an important vote, and all members of the Senate deserve to have adequate time to talk about what is at stake with this nominee."
Alito has generated stronger opposition than Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who won "yes" votes from half the chamber's 44 Democrats when he was confirmed in September. One reason is that Alito served on the federal bench for 15 years before being nominated to the high court, compiling a record that liberals consider biased in favor of government and big business and hostile to civil liberties.
Of the Judiciary Committee's eight Democrats, four have already said publicly that they intend to vote against Alito: Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, Dianne Feinstein of California, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.