WASHINGTON -- A last-minute attempt to block Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court failed yesterday as a Democratic-led filibuster was defeated 72-25, paving the way for the conservative judge to be confirmed by the Senate before President Bush's State of the Union address tonight.
At the close of a day of bitter debate over the changing direction of the court, at least 57 senators had committed to vote for Alito's nomination - including four Democrats - which all but guarantees that the appellate judge will become the nation's 110th Supreme Court justice.
A coalition of Democrats, led by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, argued forcefully that a lifetime appointment of Alito could erase the progress the nation has made in recent decades on matters of social justice.
They also feared Alito would be hostile to civil rights claims.
"This is a battle that needs to be fought," Kennedy said. "This vote we are casting on Samuel Alito is going to have echoes for years and years to come."
Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, both Maryland Democrats, supported the filibuster effort.
In the end, 19 Democrats sided with Republicans to oppose it.
Despite the failed attempt, Kerry declared: "Trying everything in our power to stop an ideological coup on the Supreme Court was the right thing to do."
Bush, who nominated Alito to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor, issued a statement last night to reaffirm his support for the former Reagan administration lawyer who has served 15 years on the U.S. Appeals Court.
"I am pleased," Bush said, "that a strong, bipartisan majority in the Senate decisively rejected attempts to obstruct and filibuster an up-or-down vote."
Even though Alito's confirmation has seemed all but certain, liberal groups aggressively criticized Senate Democrats for failing to mount vigorous opposition to the nominee.
Democrats needed 41 votes to filibuster Alito, which would have stopped the confirmation from taking place before the State of the Union address.
"This has turned into nothing more than a political war," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, chastised some Democrats for their harsh words against Alito. Specter, who supports abortion rights, expressed frustration with liberal groups that had wanted assurances from Alito that he would not overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision guaranteeing a woman's constitutional right to an abortion.
"It is a heavy responsibility to cast a vote on a Supreme Court nominee, especially one who is taking the place of Justice O'Connor - a swing vote," Specter said.
"Some have said there are no guarantees, but guarantees are for used cars and washing machines."
Only one Republican of the 55 in the Senate, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, has said he will vote against Alito.
The final vote is set for this morning and, with four Democrats pledging their support, Alito is all but certain to be confirmed in time to be fitted for a new black robe and to be seated alongside other justices at Bush's presidential address.
Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune.