Kerry Defends Senate Filibuster on Alito as 'a Vote of History'

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 28, 2006

Sen. John F. Kerry cut short a European trip yesterday and returned to Washington, where he was greeted with praise from liberal groups and ridicule from Republicans for his role in postponing a confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.

In a largely empty Capitol, Kerry (D-Mass.) defended his call for a filibuster that effectively delayed until Tuesday the Senate confirmation vote, which both parties say Alito will win. "Why are we so compelled to accept in such a rush a nominee who has so clearly been chosen for political and ideological reasons?" Kerry said in a 30-minute floor speech. "This is not the vote of Monday afternoon. This is a vote of history."

He departed by a back staircase and kept walking as reporters chased him and asked why he had decided to interrupt his trip to a world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland. "I knew ahead of time that if there was a filing" to end debate, "I would be back," Kerry said before entering his car.

Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, is considering another bid in 2008, and liberal groups that urged a filibuster will play important roles in the early primary process. Those groups strongly defended Kerry, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others who refused to end debate on Alito this week despite the urging of Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

The Alliance for Justice "commends Senators Kerry and Kennedy for using all the means available to them to continue to fight the Alito nomination," said its president, Nan Aron. "We will continue to mobilize activists to support these senators in their principled stand."

If 60 senators vote Monday to end debate, the chamber will vote Tuesday on whether to confirm Alito, 55, to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Reid told reporters yesterday that he will vote against "cloture" -- or ending debate -- to emphasize that President Bush made a "bad choice" in tapping Alito. But he added: "Everyone knows there are not enough votes to support a filibuster."

Four of the Senate's 44 Democrats have signaled they are inclined to vote to confirm Alito. Three of them -- Kent Conrad (N.D.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) -- face reelection this year in states that Bush carried against Kerry. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) also supports Alito, and several other Democratic senators have said they will not support a filibuster.

Republicans mocked Kerry's role in extending the debate from Europe on Thursday, and they continued their sarcasm yesterday. The filibuster strategy "was apparently hatched in Davos, Switzerland, where Senator Kerry now is with those masters of the universe that are out there trying to figure our world economy out," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said in a Senate speech, even though Kerry was back in Washington by then. White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters, "Even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps."

Aides to Kerry noted that several GOP senators also attended the Davos forum and that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) attended the meeting last year. They said Kerry had planned to spend another six days in Europe and was scheduled to speak in Ireland on Sunday.

Democratic activists said Kerry's actions will further endear him to liberals who support abortion rights, oppose Bush's domestic surveillance policies and desperately want to win the White House in 2008. But the filibuster drive is far less popular among Democrats running in GOP-leaning states. For example, Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who is seeking the Senate seat being vacated by Frist, issued a statement yesterday criticizing the filibuster even though the House plays no role in judicial confirmations.

Only five senators, including Kerry, spoke during a brief Senate session, and the chamber will be closed today and tomorrow.

Lawmakers devoted more time to outlining their agendas for the year, often focusing on education. Democrats have "pledged to create a new generation of innovators by calling for a qualified teacher in every math and science K-12 classroom" and by urging engineers and scientists to become teachers, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Republican senators, ending a two-day Washington "retreat," said their education initiatives will stress the need to prepare students for jobs in a global economy.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company