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An uphill battle for filibuster votes

Kennedy, Kerry push a last-ditch effort against Alito

WASHINGTON -- After bucking Democratic Party leaders by announcing a filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy yesterday scrambled for votes to support their move -- ignoring derisive hoots from Republicans and even a prediction by the Senate's top Democrat that their maneuver was doomed.

Kerry cut short his trip to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, leaving Davos before dawn to catch the day's first flight to Washington. By 1:30 p.m. -- minutes after his plane touched down at nearby Dulles International Airport -- he was on the Senate floor, pleading with his Democratic colleagues to help him prevent the ''irreversible consequences" of adding Alito, a staunch conservative, to a closely divided court.

''Why are we so compelled to accept, in such a rush, a nominee who has clearly been chosen for ideological reasons?" said Kerry, his party's 2004 presidential nominee. ''I know this is flying against some of the political punditry in Washington. But this is a fight worth making."

Meanwhile, between speeches and meetings in Boston yesterday, Kennedy worked his Senate colleagues by cellphone, reminding them of Alito's more controversial rulings as a federal judge. Kennedy urged civil rights leaders across the country to contact their senators, prepared a letter for Senate Democrats, and took a flight back to Washington last night to do some lobbying in person.

Kerry and Kennedy have taken on a daunting quest against long odds and deep skepticism within their own party. By late yesterday, the filibuster attempt still hadn't gained much traction, and both of the Bay State's senators became quick targets of mockery.

Seizing on the fact that Kerry demanded a filibuster from the economic summit -- held in Switzerland's posh Steigenberger Hotel Belvedere -- the Republican National Committee press release labeled Kerry and Kennedy the ''Davos Dems." One Capitol Hill wag tagged their Quixotic move ''the Swiss Miss."

Asked at the White House about the filibuster threat, White House press secretary Scott McClellan chuckled. ''I think even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps," he quipped.

The filibuster push, backed by liberal interest groups, did pick up a few high-profile supporters yesterday, including Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. They joined minority whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Senators Dianne Feinstein of California, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland.

But high-ranking Senate aides said the best Kerry and Kennedy can hope for is to persuade 25 or 30 Democrats to sign on -- well short of the 41 votes they need to lock in unlimited Senate debate and kill the nomination.

The filibuster attempt irritated some Democrats, who think Kerry is unwise to pick a fight he knows he can't win and expose the party to charges of obstructionism.

When he heard about Kerry and Kennedy's plans Thursday afternoon, Reid declared from the Senate floor that ''there's been adequate time for people to debate," hoping to discourage the Massachusetts senators, according to a Reid aide. However, after Kerry and Kennedy made their move yesterday, Reid said he'd support them, but quickly added that Alito will get a final approve-or-reject vote on the Senate floor Tuesday morning.

''Everyone knows there are not enough votes to support a filibuster," Reid said. ''But it's an opportunity for people to express their opinion on what a bad choice [Alito] was to replace Sandra Day O'Connor."

Under Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to end a filibuster and allow a final vote on a nominee. Most of the Senate's 55 Republicans have closed ranks and will vote for Alito, and three Democrats from heavily Republican states said they'll also vote yes to confirmation. At least five other Democrats have said they may vote no but don't want the party to use procedural tactics to block him.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, one of the Senate Judiciary Committee's leading liberals, hadn't made up his mind yesterday. As leader of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Schumer could be worried that voters might reject the party's 2006 Senate candidates because of the actions of two liberal senators and their losing cause.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, was also undecided yesterday. Representative Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, a Democratic candidate for Senate who was one of Kerry's national campaign cochairmen in 2004, came out against a filibuster.

Another Alito foe, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, told CNN he won't side with Kennedy and Kerry because, ''I see no reasonable prospect that a filibuster could work or function." Biden, who is mulling a 2008 run for president, said the vote on Alito is inevitable, therefore, ''we might as well, after we've had our say, get on with the vote."

But the Massachusetts senators' quest heartened liberal groups, who have been pushing senators for weeks to block Alito. Simply fighting the vote will highlight the stakes involved with the Supreme Court and could resonate to future nomination battles, said Nan Aron, president of the liberal group Alliance for Justice.

''The more debate and controversy that's generated, the more the opportunity exists for public education about this critically important issue," Aron said.

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