Senate Panel's Vote on Alito Delayed Until Next Week

Democrats expect Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito to be confirmed, but they want to minimize a GOP victory before the State of the Union address.
Democrats expect Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito to be confirmed, but they want to minimize a GOP victory before the State of the Union address. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee reached an agreement yesterday evening to wait until next Tuesday to vote on the nomination of Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.

The agreement alters the schedule announced Friday, during the final moments of Alito's week-long confirmation hearings, by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who said he would conduct the panel's vote today. His announcement sparked a quarrel with the panel's ranking Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), who said he would seek a delay. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) vowed that a vote in the full Senate, which has final say over all judicial candidates chosen by the president, would take place by the end of the week.

In the end, Specter and Frist essentially acknowledged the prerogative Democrats have under Senate rules to postpone any committee decision for one week. GOP leaders grumbled that Democrats had reneged on an earlier agreement about when the Alito vote would take place -- an agreement that Democrats denied ever existed.

As Republicans express confidence that they have mustered enough votes to confirm Alito, the timing of the committee's action and of the full Senate vote may not dictate whether he joins the court. But the timing plays into the short-term political calculus of both parties, as well as of a coalition of left-leaning advocacy groups that are continuing to air advertisements in an aggressive -- and, so far, relatively ineffective -- campaign to build broad public opposition to the nominee, who is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, most of whom have indicated they will vote against Alito's confirmation, were reluctant to cast their votes before a meeting tomorrow of the Senate's Democratic Caucus, at which senators plan to consider their strategy for the final phases of the confirmation process.

Democrats, anticipating that Alito ultimately will be confirmed, are trying to deny the White House that victory as long as possible, particularly in the days before the State of the Union address President Bush is to deliver Jan. 31. Although Senate rules do not enable them to defer the confirmation vote until after the speech, Democratic senators would like to reduce the victory period immediately before the speech, one of the broadest public stages the president commands each year.

The State of the Union "is the 800-pound gorilla lurking over the debate," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "That's part of the strategic calculation." Manley also said, "This is an important vote, and we are not going to be rushed into anything."

On Friday, the day Alito's confirmation hearings ended, Frist placed pressure on the Democrats to allow a quick vote. Frist announced that, unless the final vote takes place this week, he would cancel a week-long Senate vacation next week -- a step that he took yesterday, according to his chief of staff, Eric Ueland.

Ueland said last night that Frist planned to start debate over Alito in the full Senate on Jan. 25, the day after the committee's vote, adding, "We'll stay on the nomination until the judge is the justice."

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