WASHINGTON -- Leading Senate Democrats staged a coordinated attack on Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr. yesterday, saying they had "significant concerns" and "serious reservations" about his nomination.
The public criticism marked a shift from Democrats' initial response to Alito's nomination, which was generally low-key. It also signaled that, unlike the recent, relatively smooth confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Alito will likely face a bruising fight before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January and on the Senate floor after that.
The comments came two days after a 1985 document was released in which Alito, applying for a job in the Reagan administration, portrayed himself as an eager conservative activist and made it clear he believed "the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion."
That appeared to galvanize the opposition to some extent.
"Even in the first two weeks of the confirmation process, a picture of Sam Alito is emerging that may explain why the right wing is popping champagne corks," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Alito is one of the most conservative judges in the country, Reid said.
Legal analysts had long expected a brutal political fight over President Bush's Supreme Court nominations, but that has not yet materialized. Roberts attracted significant support from Democrats, who believed he was highly qualified although they disagreed with his conservative positions. And Harriet E. Miers was opposed by many conservatives, who said she did not have the requisite qualifications, forcing her ultimately to withdraw.
Now the nation might finally see the long-anticipated fight between the left and right over the future of the court.
Most observers believe Alito is still likely to be confirmed. Although he has tried to tamp down worries about his 1985 words, they have served as a catalyst for airing Democrats' anxiety about his nomination to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often was a moderate swing vote in favor of abortion rights and on other divisive issues.
In their floor speeches, Reid and Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts complained that Bush had failed to consult with the Senate before nominating Alito, expressed unhappiness that Bush failed to nominate a woman or Hispanic, and criticized specific opinions that Alito has written during 15 years as a federal appellate judge.
Kennedy also said Alito once supported a warrantless strip search of a 10-year-old girl, the elimination of black jurors over a black defendant's objection and the right of a state to intrude into the medical decisions of Pennsylvania women. Schumer and Kennedy are prominent Democrats on the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans said there is nothing wrong with senators expressing concerns, but they complained that the Democrats were twisting the meaning of Alito's opinions. "I think it's appropriate for them to raise bona fide concerns, but not to distort the man's record," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, who worried that "the drip, drip, drip, and the charges not responded to, can be damaging."
At the White House, spokesman Steve Schmidt accused Democrats of "wildly distorting [Alito's] judicial opinions for the purpose of exciting partisans who are rushing to judgment and who have no interest in giving Judge Alito a fair chance."
Schmidt also said the attacks were nearly identical to the ones some Democrats leveled when Roberts was nominated.
But the Democrats complained that Miers' nomination was withdrawn after a long, impassioned campaign by conservative activists who worried that she was insufficiently conservative.
"Before we even begin examining Judge Alito's record, a natural cause for concern is that he was picked to placate a group of vocal and hard-right activists who have been lobbying for him for many years," Schumer said.
In meeting with Alito, Schumer said he found the judge to be "bright, capable and down to earth." But he added, "In case after case, Judge Alito seems to find a way to rule on the side of business over the consumer, on the side of the employer over the employee, and often against civil rights, against workers' rights, against women's rights."
With Republicans holding a 55-44 advantage in the Senate - along with an independent who usually votes with the Democrats - Alito still seems likely to be confirmed, barring a dramatic turn of events.
Democrats have reserved the right to stage a filibuster, which would require Alito's supporters to round up 60 votes, but have not suggested at this point that they will adopt such a tactic.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.