A group of Senate Democrats decided Thursday to launch a last-ditch filibuster effort to block the confirmation of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, a move they acknowledged would be an uphill fight.
Alito’s confirmation appears all but certain -- more than half of the Senate’s 100 members have announced they would vote for him. Along with nearly unanimous support from the chamber’s 55 Republicans, Alito on Thursday picked up the backing of two Democrats -- Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
One other Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, previously had signaled that he would vote for Alito.
All three come from states that George W. Bush won in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. And Byrd and Nelson are up for reelection this year.
Johnson, who would face reelection in 2008, said he was troubled by some of Alito’s views, including what he termed the nominee’s “narrow interpretation of certain civil rights laws.”
But in a statement, Johnson added, “I cannot accept an argument that his views are so radical that the Senate is justified in denying his confirmation.”
Byrd, in comments on the Senate floor, said, “I refuse to simply toe the party line when it comes to Supreme Court justices. Of course, I am a registered Democrat. But when it comes to judges, I hail from a conservative state. And, like a majority of my constituents, I prefer conservative judges -- that is, judges who do not try to make the law.”
Alito’s opponents need 41 votes to prevent the Senate from ending debate on his nomination by President Bush, a number that appeared out of reach. Still, Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, both of Massachusetts, were attempting Thursday to rally support for a filibuster.
In turn, Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) scheduled a vote for Monday to cut off debate on Alito’s nomination, which could clear the way for a confirmation vote on Tuesday -- hours before Bush is scheduled to give the annual State of the Union address.
Kennedy called the filibuster effort “an uphill battle at the present time.”
But Kennedy said he and other Democrats would “make a good fight of it,” hoping to focus more attention on their concerns that Alito would tilt the high court too far to the right.
Alito’s confirmation would represent “an ideological coup,” Kennedy said in a statement. He termed the federal appellate judge “a far-right ideologue.”
Bush nominated Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, who has tended to take moderate-to-liberal positions on abortion rights and some other social issues. She frequently has proved to be the court’s swing vote in its decisions on such matters.
A majority of Senate Democrats have said they oppose Alito’s confirmation, but it is unclear how many would back a filibuster.
In addition to Kennedy and Kerry, supporters of a filibuster included Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland.
“There is only one way to send this nomination back to the president ... and that is to get 41 votes for a filibuster,” Boxer said.
Although she agreed with Kennedy that the odds were against sustaining a filibuster, she said that “if colleagues on both sides of the aisle realize that liberty and justice are on the line, we have a chance for a nominee in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) did not respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the minority leader, pointedly did not endorse a filibuster when discussing the tactic on the Senate floor Thursday.
“No one can claim in this matter that there hadn’t been time to talk about Judge Alito, pro or con,” Reid said. “But everyone has a right to talk. And I express my appreciation to [Frist] for giving everyone adequate time to talk.”
Republicans derided the push for a filibuster. Saying it was “crystal clear” the effort could not be sustained, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) called it “needless” and “strange.”
Some Democrats are expected to support the filibuster as a way to register as much protest as possible to Alito’s confirmation and to be responsive to concerns about him among a core of liberal activists in the party.
“It’s a matter of fighting the good fight,” said one Democratic aide, who requested anonymity when discussing the debate within party ranks over Alito.
Two liberal advocacy groups quickly applauded the filibuster effort.
“People For the American Way and the NAACP could not disagree more with today’s assertion by the Republican and Democratic Senate leaders that there has been ‘adequate time’ for debate” on Alito’s nomination, the groups said in a joint statement.
“With just two days of debate having passed, this must rank among the shortest debates for a controversial Supreme Court nomination in modern times. In fact, we believe that as debate continues, opposition to this nomination will grow, and we urge support for the Kennedy-Kerry filibuster.”