By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Republican senators, aided by 19 Democrats, cleared the path yesterday for Samuel A. Alito Jr. to join the Supreme Court and for President Bush to put his stamp firmly on the nine-member bench.
The Senate voted 72 to 25 to end debate on Alito's nomination and to allow a roll call on his confirmation today, shortly before noon. Alito's supporters garnered a dozen more votes than the 60 they needed to choke off a Democratic filibuster effort, which would have allowed debate to continue indefinitely.
Leaders of both parties said Alito, 55, will comfortably win confirmation today, although not by the 78 to 22 margin that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. received last fall. Legal analysts say Alito's 15-year record as an appellate court judge suggests he may be more consistently conservative than Roberts. Moreover, they say, Alito is poised to make a larger impact on the court because he will replace Sandra Day O'Connor, the deciding vote in numerous 5 to 4 decisions over the years. Roberts succeeded a fellow conservative, the late William H. Rehnquist.
"I am pleased that a strong, bipartisan majority in the Senate decisively rejected attempts to obstruct and filibuster an up-or-down vote on Judge Sam Alito's nomination," Bush said in a statement. "Judge Alito is extraordinarily well-qualified to serve on our nation's highest court."
The attempted filibuster was more symbolic than serious from the start, as Alito's opponents realized they were almost certain to lose yesterday's "cloture" vote. But liberal groups pressed their Senate allies to use the nomination process to underscore concerns that Alito will try to restrict abortion rights, expand presidential powers, and limit access to courts for environmentalists and others hoping to overturn state policies.
Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts took up the liberal cause last week, forcing Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to schedule yesterday's cloture vote so that today's confirmation vote could take place.
The debate was largely unremarkable until Kennedy delivered a thundering, ad-libbed speech in which he warned that the Alito vote "is going to have echoes for years and years to come."
"If you are concerned and you want a justice that is going to stand for the working men and women in this country, it's not going to be Judge Alito," Kennedy roared as tourists in the visitors' gallery leaned forward for a better view.
But Frist got the last word. "The sword of the filibuster has been sheathed," he told his colleagues moments before the roll call began. He scolded Democrats who pursued the stalling tactic on behalf of "the liberal activist agenda," and he warned that top lawyers may decline judicial nominations if they fear the confirmation process has become too brutal and partisan.
Unlike Roberts, Alito will have at least one Republican vote against him. Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee, facing a tough reelection battle in Democratic-leaning Rhode Island, announced he will vote against Alito's confirmation even though Chafee voted to end debate yesterday.
Within minutes of yesterday's vote, conservatives cheered and liberals lamented. "This vote is painful proof that a majority of senators will not stand up for women's rights, civil rights and our right to privacy when it counts the most," Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, said in a statement.
But Jan LaRue, chief counsel of Concerned Women for America, said: "The idea of filibustering a fine nominee like Judge Alito is beyond ridiculous. It's an abuse of the advice-and-consent process and defies the will of the American people."
All 53 GOP senators who were in the chamber yesterday voted to cut off debate. Most of the 19 Democrats who joined them are from states that Bush carried in 2000 and 2004. The Democratic caucus's split reflects the belief among many members that mounting a hopeless battle against Alito is less productive than confronting Republicans on issues such as ethics and Bush's domestic surveillance practices.
Maryland's senators, Democrats Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, voted to continue debate yesterday, and Virginia's senators, Republicans John W. Warner and George Allen, voted to end it.
The only successful filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee was in 1968, when unimpeded debate kept Justice Abe Fortas's bid to become chief justice from reaching a confirmation vote.