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Frist says ‘nuclear option’ is on the table in Alito confirmation

WASHINGTON (BP)–Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist pledged Dec. 11 to use the so-called “nuclear option” if Democrats filibuster Samuel Alito’s nomination, saying it would be “unconscionable” to block the Supreme Court pick.

“The answer is yes,” Frist, R.-Tenn., said when asked by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace if he would move to “impose the nuclear option” if Democrats tried to filibuster Alito.

President Bush nominated Alito to the high court Oct. 31, and the Senate Judiciary Committee subsequently scheduled hearings to begin Jan. 9. A floor vote is tentatively set for Jan. 20.

Alito’s past comments on abortion have liberal groups and some Democrats concerned. In a 1985 job application he filled out for the Justice Department, Alito said he was “proud” to have participated in cases in which the government argued that the “Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” In another 1985 document, Alito supported using an incremental legal strategy to work toward overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade case legalizing abortion.

Supreme Court nominations require only a simple majority of 51 votes from the Senate for confirmation, although liberal groups are urging a filibuster of Alito, whom they consider too conservative. It takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. A filibuster would prevent a floor vote from taking place.

But Frist and other Republicans say filibusters against judicial nominees are unconstitutional and have threatened to change the rules to ban them. The rule change has been dubbed the “nuclear” or “constitutional” option. A vote on the “nuclear option” was averted in May when seven Democrats and seven Republicans — dubbed the “Gang of 14” — reached a compromise that allowed some of Bush’s nominees to be confirmed. The compromise left the filibuster intact.

Frist, though, said Dec. 11 the “nuclear option” is still on the table.

“Sam Alito … is somebody who deserves … advice and consent by the Senate, meaning an up or down vote,” Frist said. “So I think it would be unconscionable, I think it would be wrong, I think it would be against the intent of the founding fathers and our Constitution to deny Sam Alito an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate.

“I have stood from day one on principle that these Supreme Court … nominees deserve an up or down vote, and it would be absolutely wrong to deny him that. And that’s what the constitutional option is.”

Both conservatives and liberals say Alito’s views on abortion could swing some key Supreme Court votes. He would be replacing Sandra Day O’Connor, a supporter of abortion rights.

Although his vote likely wouldn’t immediately lead to the overturning of Roe — five of the current justices are on record as supporting it — his vote could impact the issue of partial birth abortion. O’Connor was one of five justices who voted to overturn a partial birth abortion ban in 2000. Another partial birth abortion case is making its way through the federal courts.

Partial birth abortion is a procedure in which a doctor delivers an intact baby, feet first, until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the infant’s skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain, killing it. In many cases, the baby would have survived outside the womb.

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