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The Democrats' Last Roar, By Way of Princeton

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 12, 2006

It looked to be a second dreary day in the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court pick Samuel Alito, as the senators droned and the nominee dodged. Then, just before lunch, the old lion roared.

Actually, it started as a growl. The gray-maned Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) read quotations published by a conservative Princeton group to which Alito belonged, protesting that blacks, Hispanics and women "don't know their place" and suggesting medical experiments for gay Princeton students.

Paying no heed to Alito's anxious insistence that he was not active in the group, Kennedy then pounced on Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "Mr. Chairman, if I could have your attention, I think we ought to vote on issuing a subpoena" for the group's records, Kennedy said, his voice rising and his face flushing.

Specter, awakened from a reverie by Kennedy's sudden outburst, protested that this was the first he was hearing of the issue and banged his gavel to indicate that it was time to move on. But this only inflamed Kennedy more. "If I'm going to be denied that, I'd want to give notice to the chair that you're going to hear it again and again and again and we're going to have votes of this committee again and again and again until we have a resolution."

Specter, now fully appreciating the ambush, hollered back. "Well, Senator Kennedy, I'm not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again," he admonished. "And I'm not going to have you run this committee." He banged the gavel again.

The hearing room was transformed. The nominee's wife, Martha-Ann Alito, sighed. Alito's White House handler, Dan Coats, started working his BlackBerry. The reporters began tapping on their keyboards. Kennedy took a sip of water, flashed a tight smile at Alito, then a broader smile in the direction of the photographers in the pit.

Thus did Democrats take their last stand against Alito. It had become clear that the committee, with unified GOP support, would clear the judge. Surveying the various lines of attack against Alito -- his opposition to abortion, his support for a powerful president, his conflict-of-interest issues -- Democrats concluded that their best hope was in Alito's membership in a group opposed to gains by women and minorities. Clarence Thomas had Anita Hill. Alito would have the Concerned Alumni of Princeton.

Whatever the charge's merits, it drew blood.

As several more Democrats joined Kennedy's assault -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) donned a Princeton baseball cap for the occasion -- Alito's replies grew more frantic. "I disavow them. I deplore them. They represent things that I have always stood against and I can't express too strongly," he told Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

"If you don't mind the suspicious nature that I have, it's that you may be saying that because you want to get on the Supreme Court, that you're disavowing this now because it doesn't look too good," said Graham, trying to help Alito. "I'm going to be very honest with you," Graham continued. "Are you really a closet bigot?"

Alito's ears turned scarlet. "I'm not any kind of bigot," he said, emotionally. "I'm not."

"Of course you're not," Graham said. Behind him, Martha-Ann Alito had had enough. She stood up, tissue in hand, and rushed to the back of the room, where Capitol Police whisked away the tearful woman. She didn't return for an hour.

The day started well enough for Alito. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) continued to lob such softballs -- "Did you go out of your way to rule against workers?" -- that even his GOP colleagues had to smile. The nominee earned chuckles for joking that if court sessions were televised, "our Nielsen numbers would be in the negative."

But Kennedy, armed with a poster showing bigoted remarks by the Princeton group, ended the grins. "I've testified to everything that I can recall," the now-testy nominee said.

Kennedy, participating in his 23rd Supreme Court confirmation, started a schoolyard brawl with the committee chairman, demanding a subpoena of the Princeton documents.

"You and I see each other all the time and you have never mentioned it to me," Specter protested.

Kennedy said he had sent a letter making the request.

"We actually didn't get a letter," the chairman said.

"You did get a letter."

"Now, wait a minute: You don't know what I got."

"Yes, I do, Senator, since I sent it."

The longtime legislators continued to bicker until Specter erupted: "I take umbrage at your telling me what I received. I don't mind your telling me what you mailed. But there's a big difference between what's mailed and what's received. And you know that."

The great postal debate proved moot after lunch, when Specter announced that the custodian of the Princeton papers would turn them over without a subpoena. He scolded Kennedy for starting a "tussle" over nothing. "Senator Kennedy and I frequent the gym at the same time and talk all the time, and he never mentioned it to me," he said.

Kennedy was no longer the lion: "I regret I haven't been down in the gym since before Christmas," he explained. "So I missed you."

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