WASHINGTON — The Judiciary Committee favorably recommended Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court nomination to the full Senate on a party-line vote today, moving the conservative jurist one step closer to joining the high court.
All 10 Republicans voted for Alito, while all eight Democrats voted against him. The partisan vote was almost preordained, with 15 of the 18 senators announcing their votes even before the committee’s session began.
The full Senate expects to take a final vote on Alito’s nomination before the end of the week. That vote is also expected to follow along party lines, with only one Democrat — Ben Nelson of Nebraska — coming out so far in support of Alito. Republicans hold the balance of power in the Senate 55-44, with one independent.
Senate Republicans say Alito is a good choice for the nation’s highest court.
“Like America’s founders, Judge Alito clearly believes in self-government, that the people and not judges should make law, and that judges have an important role but must know and stay in their proper place,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
But Democrats are fretting that the 55-year-old jurist and former lawyer for the Reagan administration will swing the Court to the right and help overturn precedent-setting decisions like Rode v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s abortion-rights case, although he refused to talk about that decision at his confirmation hearing.
“He still believes that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion, but does not want to tell the American people because he knows how unpopular that view is,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
In a statement after the vote, the White House said: “The negative tone, relentless attacks and distortion of Judge Alito’s career confirmed what we already knew from the hearings: Judge Alito had an open mind but the Democrats, beholden to their interest groups, did not.”
“Democrats have repeatedly twisted and distorted Judge Alito’s positions to the point where they are unrecognizable,” said spokesman Stephen Schmidt. “Democrats’ relentless politicization of a process that has traditionally been above partisan politics is disappointing.”
Even with the party line vote, Democrats are not expected to filibuster Alito’s nomination. The Senate will begin final debate tomorrow, and Republicans hope to get a final vote by Jan. 27.
Alito has a lot of public support as his nomination heads to the full Senate. More than half, 54% in a CNN-USA TODAY-Gallup poll out this week, said they thought the Senate should vote to confirm him. That is up slightly from early January, before hearings were held.
Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts won the votes of 22 Democrats last year — including three in committee — ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont as well as Wisconsin Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl.
Those three senators voted against Alito today.
“This is a nomination that I fear threatens the fundamental rights and liberties of all Americans now in for generations to come,” Leahy said of the Alito nomination.
Alito was picked last October by President Bush to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. She was the high court’s first female member, and a key swing vote on contentious issues such as abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty during her career on the Court.
Alito was the White House’s second choice for that seat. White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew from consideration last year after conservative criticism of her nomination.
Republicans and Democrats are preparing to use the partisan battle over judicial nominations as a campaign issue in the midterm election this year. Republicans say the Democratic filibuster of a lower court judge helped them oust former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota two years ago.
If Democrats want to make judges a campaign issue, “we welcome that debate on our side. We’ll clean your clock,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Alito may be on his way to the most partisan victory for a Supreme Court nominee in years. The closest margin for victory for a Supreme Court justice in modern history is Justice Clarence Thomas’ 52-48 victory in 1991. In that vote, 11 Democrats broke with their party and voted for President George H.W. Bush’s nominee.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., warned that Republicans would remember a party-line Alito vote in future Supreme Court nominations, considering several Republicans voted for Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who were nominated by President Clinton.
“It is simply unrealistic to think that one party would put itself at a disadvantage by eschewing political considerations while the other party almost unanimously applies such considerations,” Kyl said. “So I say to my Democratic friends: Think carefully about what is being done today. Its impact will be felt well beyond this particular nominee.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said things are different from when the Senate considered Breyer and Ginsburg, who were confirmed 87-9 and 96-3 respectively. “There was not the polarization within America that is there today, and not the defined move to take this Court in a singular direction,” Feinstein said.
Liberal groups are pushing hard to get as many Democrats as possible to vote against Alito on the Senate floor. Anti-Alito protesters holding “Oppose Alito, Save Roe” and “Stop Alito” signs lined up outside the U.S. Capitol, hoping to sway some votes.
“Judge Alito’s record as a professional — both as a Justice Department official and as a judge — reflects something more than a neutral judicial philosophy,” Kohl said. He noted that Alito has refused to call the Rode v. Wade abortion decision “settled law.”
Alito’s record “suggests a judge who has strong views on a variety of issues, and uses the law to impose those views,” Kohl said.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee’s chairman and an abortion-rights moderate, said he voted for Alito after questioning him on abortion at the confirmation hearings.
“On the issue of a woman’s right to choose,” he said, “it is my judgment that he went as far as he could go.”