Fate could hang on filibuster compromise

Group of 14 Democrats and Republicans agreed to avert a showdown over rules in most cases

November 01, 2005|By MARY CURTIUS AND RICHARD SIMON | MARY CURTIUS AND RICHARD SIMON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Democrats began gearing up yesterday for a high-stakes fight over federal appellate Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court but stopped short of threatening to filibuster President Bush's pick.

Democrats and Republicans predicted that Alito's fate would probably be decided by the so-called Gang of 14, mavericks from both parties who cobbled together a compromise in May that averted a showdown over judicial nominees.

"There is a potential for the Gang of 14 to perform a pivotal - if not decisive - role," Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican and a member of the group, said in a statement supporting the nomination.

Privately, senior Democratic staff members doubted that the seven moderate Democrats in the Gang of 14 would consider Alito's strongly conservative record - or the fact that his ascension to the court could tip its balance - as the sort of "extraordinary circumstances" that would allow them to support a filibuster.

"I don't think Democrats are going to say filibuster unless they are sure they want to filibuster and they have the votes," said a senior Senate Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

The Gang of 14, which also includes seven moderate Republicans, agreed in May that except in "extraordinary circumstances," they would neither support filibusters of judicial nominations nor support a Senate rules change to eliminate the filibuster.

Unless they can break the group's unity, Democrats would be unable to muster the 41 votes they would need to conduct a filibuster, a parliamentary procedure that blocks a vote by preventing an end to debate.

As Alito visited senators from both parties on Capitol Hill, interest groups prepared for the sort of fight that could pressure his opponents to filibuster.

"This is maybe the most controversial, most important Supreme Court nominee since [Robert] Bork and [Clarence] Thomas," said Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way. If efforts to persuade senators from both parties to vote against Alito fail, Neas said, then, "yes, we would support the senators using any parliamentary option at their disposal, including filibuster, to defeat this nomination."

Bork was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court in 1987. His failed confirmation hearings were among the most bitter in Senate history. Thomas' successful nomination by the first President George Bush provoked months of argument.

By yesterday afternoon, the American Conservative Union had asked its members to help raise $200,000 in 14 days to launch a campaign to win Alito's confirmation.

Among Republicans in the Gang of 14, most generally expressed support for him. At least two - Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina - said they had seen no "extraordinary circumstances" in Alito's record that would allow them to support a filibuster.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, who is not a member of the group, said the judge's record "hardly measures up to the standard the Gang of 14 had of `extraordinary circumstances.'" He spent more than an hour with Alito.

The chairman said he had not decided when the committee would hold confirmation hearings on the nomination.

Among Democrats in the group, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas said he needed to know more about Alito before saying whether the nominee might face a filibuster.

Pryor said Bush should have consulted the Senate more before choosing Alito. He pointed out that White House adviser Karl Rove had called him before Bush nominated Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to be chief justice, and again before the president nominated Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court. He learned of Alito's nomination on his car radio, Pryor said.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who is a member of the Gang of 14, said Alito should have a "fair and thorough hearing."

Nelson said that he had talked to several in the group.

"The consensus has been, `Let the process work.' It's too early to come to any conclusions," he said in an interview.

Nelson said he hoped that no filibuster was threatened, but that if there was a threat, "the Gang of 14 will serve as a safety valve to take a look at the situation."

The group plans to meet Thursday.

Even as Democrats held back, some Republicans predicted the minority party would use the filibuster. They said they were prepared to change the Senate rules to take away that right if Democrats use it against a Supreme Court nominee.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that while "every conservative in America ought to be pretty tickled with this nominee," he feared "Armageddon" in the Senate.

Mary Curtius and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times.

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