Senate Democrats Emphasizing Ethics, Not Alito

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 16, 2006

Just as Samuel A. Alito Jr. was wrapping up three days of testimony in his bid for a Supreme Court seat -- which core Democratic groups desperately want to prevent -- the Senate's Democratic leader sent an e-mail statement to hundreds of journalists.

In it, Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) had this to say about Alito: not one word. The Thursday news release, trumpeting a "Republican Culture of Corruption" in big red letters, dealt with Republican lawmakers' alleged ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a theme of Democratic messages these days.

Later that day, after Alito had left the hearing room, Reid issued a criticism of the nominee but made no mention of a possible filibuster, seen as the only conceivable way Democrats might thwart the nomination in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The fact that Reid paid scant attention to Alito that day, amid heavy TV coverage, is testament to the faith that Democratic leaders place in the ethics-corruption issue as a winner in November's congressional elections.

On Wednesday -- when Senate Democrats return from recess and huddle on the Alito nomination for the first time since the hearing -- congressional, national and state party leaders plan a major Washington event. It will not focus not on Alito but on a proposed "honest leadership act" that would ban gifts to lawmakers, among other things.

These priorities hint at the difficulties Democrats have experienced during the past six months in pursuing the goal of keeping conservatives such as Alito and John G. Roberts Jr. off the Supreme Court. Roberts coasted to confirmation as chief justice last fall, and GOP senators predict Alito will be confirmed this month, albeit by a narrower margin. Analysts say Alito's confirmation in particular could move the court notably to the right.

The Supreme Court battles stand in contrast to last year's major Democratic victory, the stifling of President Bush's bid to restructure Social Security. Although key constituency groups poured money and time into both efforts, the outcomes differed dramatically.

"The reality is that Social Security hits people where they live," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "Nearly everyone feels they have skin in the game. It is harder to grab the public's attention on a court nomination."

Senate Democrats have learned this lesson the hard way. Now, forced to decide soon whether to launch an Alito filibuster that is likely to fail, several are asking whether it is worth the effort, party insiders say. One top Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on background because he did not have his boss's permission to talk publicly, predicted a closed debate Wednesday on whether it makes more sense to focus on the most promising issues, such as GOP ethics woes, and avoid being tarred as "obstructionists" for trying to derail a confirmation vote.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she will vote against Alito's confirmation but saw no reason to filibuster it. "I do not see the likelihood of a filibuster," she said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I don't see those kinds of egregious things emerging that would justify a filibuster."

Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Democratic senator and one of Alito's sharpest questioners last week, spoke to the party's mixed feelings about a filibuster when he told reporters: "I'm not going to presume one way or the other whether my colleagues are even interested in it."

Such comments dismay liberal groups, including those backing abortion rights. Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Friday she is not giving up on a filibuster. But she acknowledged that Democratic senators need to be convinced. "Now it's our job to have the American public talk to those senators," Keenan said as her group and others unveiled a TV ad attacking Alito.

Meantime, Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other party leaders are focusing on congressional ethics and allegations of GOP corruption. They hope Americans can relate to the issue viscerally, as they did last year to Democratic pleas to "protect Social Security" from Bush's proposed private accounts.

To that end, Democrats will argue that ethically dubious practices in Congress hit Americans in the pocketbook. Republican lawmakers pass bills that give tax breaks to oil companies, and forbid the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare, because they are beholden to petroleum and pharmaceutical lobbyists, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), his party's chief recruiter for House candidates this fall.

Whether voters buy that message or not, they are likely to hear much more about ethics than justices in the coming weeks and months. "Regardless what the senators do," Van Hollen said, "there's going to be a continuing focus on the lobbying and ethics scandals."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company