Democrats Split Over Filibuster On Alito

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006

Several prominent Democratic senators called for a filibuster of Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s Supreme Court nomination yesterday, exposing a deep divide in the party even as they delighted the party's liberal base.

The filibuster's supporters -- including Sens. John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts -- acknowledged that the bid is likely to fail and that Alito is virtually certain to be confirmed Tuesday. But they said extended debate may draw more Americans' attention to Alito's conservative stands on abortion, civil rights, presidential powers and other matters.

"Judge Alito will take America backward, especially when it comes to civil rights and discrimination laws," Kerry said in a statement issued by his office. He added: "It's our right and our responsibility to oppose him vigorously and to fight against this radical upending of the Supreme Court."

Kennedy said that Alito, 55, "does not share the values of equality and justice that make this country strong," adding: "He does not deserve a place on the highest court of the land."

Liberal groups such as People for the American Way have implored Democratic senators to filibuster Alito's nomination, even if it means nothing more than staking their principles and showing that Democrats will fight against a party that controls the House, Senate and White House. But many Republicans have relished the idea of a Democratic-led filibuster, saying it helps them portray the minority party as obstructionist and beholden to left-leaning groups.

"Continuing to threaten a filibuster, even after it is crystal clear that Democrats don't have the necessary votes to sustain their obstruction, is needless, strange and at odds with many of their fellow Democrats," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said in a statement. Some Republicans poked fun at Kerry -- the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, who may make another White House bid -- for allowing others to announce the filibuster plan earlier in the day while he was attending an economic conference in Davos, Switzerland.

A filibuster involves endless debate intended to keep a measure -- such as a judicial nomination -- from reaching a vote. Sixty votes in the 100-member Senate are needed to end a filibuster. Republicans hold 55 seats, and enough Democratic senators will join them to end debate and hold a vote next week with votes to spare, Alito supporters said. If Alito supporters failed to get the 60 votes, a filibuster officially would begin and debate would continue.

Bitter disputes over judicial filibusters nearly brought the Senate to a standstill last year. After Democrats used the stalling tactic to block several of President Bush's appellate court nominees, Republicans threatened to change Senate rules to ban judicial filibusters. A bipartisan accord, which excluded both parties' leaders, averted the showdown and made a successful filibuster effort considerably more difficult. GOP leaders say they will revive their "nuclear option" threat if a Democratic filibuster endangers confirmation of a Bush nominee.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said the Senate will vote Monday afternoon to end debate and vote Tuesday morning on whether to confirm Alito to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. At least three Democratic senators -- Ben Nelson (Neb.), Robert C. Byrd Jr. (W.Va.) and Tim Johnson (S.D.) -- have said they will vote for Alito. Others have said they would not support a filibuster, regardless how they vote on confirmation.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) repeatedly told colleagues this week that he wanted to avoid a filibuster, party members said. He looked frustrated in the Senate chamber yesterday as he told Frist he could not avert the parliamentary tactic. Shrugging his shoulders, Reid said he hoped "this matter will be resolved without too much more talking, but . . . everyone has the right to talk."

Party sources said Reid and others worry that a filibuster, while likely to fail, will nonetheless detract voters' attention from issues that Democratic leaders consider more promising. They include Bush's controversial domestic surveillance program, the indictments of a top White House official and a congressional leader, and the unfolding scandal centered on former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Party leaders especially worry about forcing a filibuster decision on Democrats seeking reelection this fall in GOP-leaning states, including Nelson and Kent Conrad (N.D.).

While Reid hoped to avoid a filibuster, Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) supports it. But at a midday session with reporters, Durbin acknowledged the likely futility.

"Having made a count," he said, "I have come to the conclusion it is highly unlikely that a filibuster would succeed."

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