With its conservative base now secure, the White House turned its attention yesterday to wooing moderates in both parties as it seeks to build a Senate coalition that will confirm Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court despite the aggressive opposition of liberal Democrats.
A day after President Bush nominated him to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Alito spent the day on Capitol Hill introducing himself to more lawmakers. He focused on Democratic senators representing Republican-leaning states as well as Republican members of a bipartisan coalition that headed off judicial filibusters this year.
White House strategists assume that they will lose at least the 22 Senate Democrats who voted against confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in September. But they hope to win over enough red-state Democrats to thwart any attempt to block Alito. If the Republican leadership can hold together its 55-member caucus, it would need five Democrats to break a filibuster and ensure Alito's confirmation.
At this point, it is not assured that the Republicans will stick together. More-liberal Senate Republicans who support abortion rights have kept a cautious distance from Alito, and Democrats will try to peel them away from the fold.
But the Bush team won important support from key senators yesterday. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a member of the bipartisan "Gang of 14" that agreed this year to oppose judicial filibusters except in "extraordinary circumstances," made clear yesterday he sees no such circumstances with Alito's nomination.
"It's hard for me to envision that anyone would think about filibustering this nominee," DeWine said after meeting with Alito. He called Alito "clearly within the mainstream of conservative thought" and said he did not understand how "anyone would think that this would constitute what our group of 14 termed 'extraordinary circumstances' that would justify a filibuster."
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another member of the Gang of 14, said that "it's way too early to talk about extraordinary circumstances." The group -- seven Republicans and seven Democrats -- plans to meet tomorrow in the office of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to talk through its approach to the nomination.
Alito, a potent conservative voice on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, was chosen by Bush after conservatives forced the withdrawal of Harriet Miers's nomination last week. Alito began his tour of red-state Democrats yesterday with Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.). He is to visit Nelson today and Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) tomorrow.
None of the three sits on the Judiciary Committee, whose members are usually visited first by Supreme Court nominees, and all three said the White House offered the courtesy calls without being asked.
Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group set up to support Bush judicial nominations, said such a strategy makes sense.
"If Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer are the face of the Democratic Party for the next four months," he said, mentioning prominent liberals from Massachusetts and New York, "I don't think that's good for Ben Nelson or Max Baucus or Mark Pryor or other red-state Democrats."
Baucus, from Montana, and Pryor are Democrats from states Bush won in both his presidential races.
No Senate Democrat has outright opposed Alito so far, but the caucus has come under great pressure from liberal interest groups that fear he would push the Supreme Court to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 that affirmed the right to have an abortion. "This weekend, we turned the clocks back one hour to observe Standard Time," said Ellen R. Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a group that finances female candidates who support abortion rights. "Monday morning, President Bush turned the clocks back 32 years with the nomination" of Alito.
Former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), who is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2008, said in an e-mail to supporters: "President Bush is making yet another divisive choice nominating Judge Samuel Alito to the highest court in the land."
Conservative supporters countered with a new television ad calling Alito "one of America's most respected judges" and a former prosecutor who went after "terrorists and corporate criminals."
Meanwhile, the White House released a letter signed by Alito in 2003, in which he asked that a 2002 ruling he made in favor of the Vanguard financial company be reconsidered by other judges. Alito wrote the letter after a widow, who Vanguard had blocked from obtaining access to her husband's accounts, sought to overturn the ruling on grounds that Alito had substantial investments in Vanguard funds.
"I do not believe that I am required to disqualify myself based on my ownership of the mutual fund shares. Nor do I believe that I am a party" to the lawsuit, Alito wrote. "However, it has always been my personal practice to recuse in any case in which any possible question might arise. Under the circumstances here, I am voluntarily recusing in this case."
Alito had promised the Senate in 1990 that after his confirmation to the appellate bench, he would disqualify himself from any lawsuit involving Vanguard. The White House said that he nonetheless had originally joined two other judges in deciding the case because of a "computer glitch" at the court that failed to detect his conflict of interest.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.