The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday endorsed the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. in a vote that split along party lines and highlighted disputes over his conservative judicial record.
The full Senate will begin its debate on Alito today and a vote on his selection by President Bush to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could come by the end of the week. Alito is expected to narrowly win confirmation and, as a justice, tilt the court to the right.
O'Connor, 75, frequently sided with the court's more liberal members on an array of social issues, providing the swing vote on some decisions. Alito, 55, probably would take more conservative positions in many cases, including those involving abortion rights and the death penalty.
In Tuesday's committee vote, all of the panel's 10 Republicans supported Alito, praising him as an accomplished federal appellate judge who, on the high court, would follow the law, not try to rewrite it.
"If anybody has demonstrated judicial temperament and poise and patience, it is Judge Alito," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee's chairman. "He ought to be confirmed on that basis alone."
All the committee's eight Democrats voted against Alito, with several saying they were especially concerned that his record and his testimony to the panel this month suggested he would not move to curb Bush's efforts to expand his wartime powers.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who does not serve on the committee, echoed the complaints about Alito in announcing that he would oppose his nomination.
"Judge Alito has failed to demonstrate a commitment to the system of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution," Reid said. "At a time when the president is abusing his power at every turn, I cannot vote to confirm a judge who won't be an independent check on the executive branch."
But Democrats stopped short of calling for a filibuster -- the only apparent way the minority party could derail Alito's nomination in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Asked whether he would mount such a parliamentary tactic against Alito, Reid answered, "No," although he refused to rule out the possibility.
Specter said he was glad that Alito received the formal nod from the panel, but expressed regret at the partisan outcome of the vote.
"I am personally sorry to see a party-line vote out of this committee, and perhaps very close to a party-line vote out of the full Senate," Specter said. "But we all have our points of view."
According to congressional researchers, the last Supreme Court nominee to be approved by the committee on a party-line vote was Louis D. Brandeis in 1916. Brandeis was picked for the court by Democratic President Wilson.
Reid and other leading Senate Democrats sent a clear signal that party members would vote nearly as a bloc against Alito's confirmation. But Reid also said the matter was a "vote of conscience," meaning the leaders would not insist upon opposition to him.
Only one Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, has said he plans to vote for Alito.
Nelson is among a handful of Democrats facing reelection this fall in states that lean Republican, and party leaders don't want to pressure them to take a position that could jeopardize their seats.
Almost all of the Senate's 55 Republicans have expressed support for Alito, with just a few from Democratic-leaning states remaining officially undecided. One believed likely to oppose Alito is Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a supporter of abortion rights who is up for reelection in November.
A close vote on Alito would contrast with the 78-22 tally by which John G. Roberts Jr. was confirmed in September as Bush's choice for chief justice. In that vote, half the Senate's 22 Democrats supported him. He also had won the backing of three of the Judiciary Committee's Democrats.
Alito, who before becoming a federal appellate judge in 1990 worked in the Reagan administration's Justice Department, has sparked more opposition partly because of Democrats' concerns that he would change the court's political balance. Roberts was replacing the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who consistently issued conservative rulings.
Before the Judiciary Committee vote, senators from both parties made the case for and against Alito. For Democrats, the question of the limits on executive power took front and center.
"The president is in the midst of a radical realignment of the powers of the government and its intrusiveness into the private lives of Americans," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat. "And I believe this nomination is part of that plan. I am concerned that if we confirm this nominee, we will further erode the checks and balances that have protected our constitutional rights for more than 200 years."
The controversy over the president's decision to bypass special courts and order warrantless wiretaps on American citizens and others inside the country was a consistent strain in Democrats' critique of Alito.
"We have a president who claims that he has the authority to spy on persons on American soil without a court order required by law," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "The record demonstrates that we cannot count on Judge Alito to blow the whistle when the president is out of bounds. He is a long-standing advocate for expanding executive power, even at the expense of core individual liberties."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the only woman on the committee, said she was troubled by Alito's statement during his committee testimony that legal "precedent is not an inexorable command" in decisions by the Supreme Court.
She said that suggested to her that Alito would not be committed to uphold the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide. "That's exactly the language Justice Rehnquist used arguing to overturn Roe," Feinstein said. "That spoke volumes to me."
Republicans accused Democrats of politicizing what they said should be a nonpartisan confirmation process.
"Why is this committee divided over Judge Alito?" asked Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). "It cannot be because of his qualifications or temperament, but only because our Democratic colleagues don't think he will vote the right way, the way that they think he should, on some cases."
He added: "I fear a very bad precedent is being set today, a precedent that a unanimous minority will oppose a nominee on political grounds, not because the nominee is in any way unqualified."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) accused Democrats of trying to turn Alito's nomination into a campaign issue in fall congressional elections.
"We're no longer advising and consenting. We're jockeying for the next election," Graham said. "And over time we'll erode the quality of the judiciary."
But Graham acknowledged that politics, at least the presidential kind, are part of the equation when it comes to the Supreme Court.
"What did you expect President Bush to do" in making court nominations? he asked Democrats rhetorically.
Throughout his two winning presidential campaigns, Bush stressed he would nominate conservatives to the court.