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Senate defeats filibuster attempt, 72-25, setting up Tuesday confirmation vote

WASHINGTON (BP)–U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito cleared his final hurdle Monday before confirmation by the Senate.

With 19 Democrats joining 53 Republicans, the Senate voted 72-25 to end debate on President Bush’s nominee to the high court and move to a confirmation vote, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 11 a.m. (EST). The successful vote, known as invoking cloture, ended the possibility of a filibuster and virtually assured Alito would be confirmed to succeed retiring Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

The cloture vote required 60 votes to succeed, but the confirmation vote for Alito will need only a majority of the 100 senators. Fifty-three of the 55 Republican senators have committed to vote for Alito, and four Democrats have said they will support his confirmation.

The senators from Massachusetts, Democrats John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, were seeking to rally support among their Democratic colleagues for a filibuster to postpone or prevent a confirmation vote. But quite a few of their fellow party members who said they would vote against Alito’s confirmation were unwilling to go along with a filibuster.

Democrats Robert Byrd (W. Va.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) have said they will vote to confirm Alito.

Among Republicans, only Sen. Lincoln Chaffee has pledged to vote against confirmation.

“The good news is that the Democrats’ partisan stunt failed, and Judge Alito will be confirmed Tuesday morning. The bad news is that there is a firmly entrenched minority of Senators who appear committed to defeat — by any means necessary — any judge who will not promise to impose the hard left’s agenda from the bench,” Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, said in a statement.

The filibuster vote split the Democrats in two, with 24 voting for it, 19 against it.

Two Republicans — John Ensign (Nev.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) — did not vote. Ensign was involved in a car accident Monday morning, and an Associated Press story said he sustained “bumps and bruises.”

During debate leading up to the late afternoon cloture vote Tuesday, Kerry made his case for filibustering Alito.

“The president has chosen to send a Supreme Court nominee who comes directly out of a revolt by the ideological wing of his party in order to satisfy their demands for ideological orthodoxy,” Kerry said. “It’s hardly obstructionist to use, as a former [chairman] of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Hatch, described it, quote, ‘One of the few tools the minority has to protect itself and those that the minority represents.’ That’s exactly what we are doing here.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, pleaded for more time, contending too many questions remained about Alito.

“[A]ll we’re asking for is an opportunity to be able to have the kind of full discussion and full debate that we ought to and that members of the Senate that haven’t had a chance to speak have an opportunity. It’s not asking too much,” Kennedy said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R.-Iowa, said, however, the Senate had had “plenty of time” to debate.

“No Supreme Court nomination has ever been defeated by a filibuster if a majority of the senators stood ready to confirm that nominee,” Grassley said. “… It really is unfortunate that certain senators will vote against this nominee because they think doing so is a good political issue for them.”

Upon hearing Kennedy’s statement, Cornyn’s office issued a press release, quoting Minority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev., as saying Jan. 26: “There has been adequate time for people to debate. No one can complain in this matter that there hasn’t been sufficient time to talk about Judge Alito, pro or con.”

The Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, for Alito Jan. 24, and Senate floor debate began the next day.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky., called the campaign for a filibuster a “reckless effort by a few to deny the rights of many.”

“There is a role for the filibuster for legislative matters…. [But] I have not seen a good reason for employing it in the context of judicial nominations — nor did any Senate, prior to the last Congress, find that a tactic that should be employed,” McConnell said.

Democrats have used filibusters in recent years to block confirmation votes on some of President Bush’s federal appeals court nominees. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R.-Tenn., said that none of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices had to face a cloture vote during their confirmation.

Near the end of debate, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, argued the Democrats’ objections -– contrary to what they have said — boils down to only one issue.

“This is about abortion,” Hatch said. “That is the be-all and end-all issue of those who oppose Judge Alito…. That’s what is driving them, and that is what the outside, special interest, left-wing groups are using to drive them. The 800-pound precedent in the room is Roe v. Wade. That is the decision Judge Alito’s opponents want left alone at all costs.”

Pro-life advocates and other social conservatives are hopeful the addition of Alito, who has a reputation for strictly interpreting the Constitution, will help move the court away from its often liberal direction. O’Connor, who has continued to serve as a justice while awaiting a replacement, was often a swing vote who frequently sided with the liberal members of the court on such contentious issues as abortion and the relationship between church and state.

Alito, a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals for the last 15 years, will be the second nominee by Bush to be confirmed to the Supreme Court in barely four months despite opposition by abortion rights and other liberal organizations, as well as some Democrats. The Senate confirmed John Roberts as chief justice Sept. 29 in a 78-22 vote.

Bush originally nominated Roberts to replace O’Connor after she announced her retirement in July. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in early September, the president changed plans and chose Roberts for that post.

The president nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to fill O’Connor’s place on the court, but she withdrew as a candidate in late October after vocal opposition from some conservatives.

The 19 Democrats who voted against the filibuster were: Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Max Baucus (Mont), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Robert Byrd (W. Va.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.), Thomas Carper (Del.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Herb Kohl (Wis.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), John D. Rockefeller (W. Va.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.).

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