Alito filibuster effort falls short

Kennedy, Kerry divide Democrats

By Charlie Savage
Globe Staff / January 31, 2006
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WASHINGTON -- Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy begged, cajoled, and thundered in their attempt to persuade colleagues to join them in blocking a vote on the Supreme Court confirmation of Samuel A. Alito Jr., but in the end yesterday they succeeded only in splitting the Democratic caucus.

Despite the Massachusetts Democrats' efforts, Republicans and moderate Democrats mustered 72 votes yesterday in favor of ending debate on Alito's nomination -- far more than the 60 votes needed to stop the filibuster.

Kennedy and Kerry got 25 senators, including Jim Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, to support the effort. Three senators were not present.

The vote to end debate set up a final vote to confirm the conservative judge as the nation's 110th justice; that vote is set for 11 a.m. today.

The 24-19 vote among Democrats over whether to join the filibuster against Alito followed the party's 22-22 split decision on confirming Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in September.

This time, Democratic leaders hope to have almost all of the 44 Democrats cast votes against Alito.

But by using a procedural move to try to block the nomination, which many Democrats opposed, Kerry and Kennedy showed that the party remained divided on how far to go to prevent Alito from joining the court.

The Senate minority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, had argued in a closed Democratic caucus last week against mounting a filibuster, saying that it had no chance of success and that it would only distract from the party's focus on President Bush's domestic spying program, Republican lobbying scandals, and other potential election-year issues.

Reid also said in public last week that there had been enough debate on the Alito nomination. But once Kennedy and Kerry went public with their call for a filibuster, Reid joined them.

Several other Democrats who voted for the filibuster also did so with reluctance, saying that they had doubts about its wisdom but that they would go along with the effort.

Kerry and Kennedy, however, were unapologetic.

Kennedy argued that the gesture was worth it, even though it did not stop the nominee, because it provided an additional opportunity to galvanize attention on Bush's conservative judicial agenda.

''To get their [the public's] focus and attention on this, and have them understand the significance and importance, takes time," Kennedy said in a telephone interview.

Kennedy twice delivered impassioned speeches against Alito yesterday and, in a conference call with liberal bloggers over the weekend, he pushed for a call-in campaign to pressure moderate Democrats to oppose Alito.

Kerry, too, urged colleagues yesterday to ''take a stand" against Alito ''when it counts" -- before, he said, the Supreme Court begins issuing sharply conservative opinions in cases involving presidential power, abortion, and civil rights.

''Many on my side oppose this nomination," Kerry said. ''They say they understand the threat he poses, but they argue that [a filibuster] is different. I don't believe it is. It is the only way that those of us in the minority have a voice in this debate."

Analysts said that by leading the filibuster, Kerry had bolstered his standing among party activists as he weighs another presidential campaign.

Three likely opponents for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination -- Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, and Evan Bayh of Indiana -- voted for the filibuster.

Liberal judicial activists who had led the public campaign against Alito said they were pleased that Democrats had staged the filibuster, calling it a demonstration of the depth of their concern.

Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice said she was ''proud that they went the extra mile to underscore how profoundly the Alito nomination will change the Supreme Court." Ralph Neas of the People for the American Way added that ''it is excruciatingly disappointing that more senators did not consider Alito's record sufficient reason to join those efforts."

But by splitting Senate Democrats on the eve of what had been expected to be a resounding vote against Alito, the filibuster prompted frustration among colleagues, said a Democratic aide, speaking on background.

''Some people are asking: 'Did Kerry do this in the best interests of the Democratic Party, or in the best interests of John Kerry?' " the aide said.

Republicans, too, were dealing with internal dissension after Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, yesterday became the first GOP senator to say that he will vote against Alito, although he declined to support the filibuster. ''I am a prochoice, proenvironment, pro-Bill of Rights Republican and I will be voting against this nomination," Chafee said.

Rhode Island favored Kerry over Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Chafee's decision to break ranks with Republicans could help his reelection campaign this fall, but it may give fuel to his more conservative GOP primary opponent, Stephen Laffey.

Laffey, who has endorsed Alito, denounced Chafee yesterday, saying he had sided ''with the liberal special interests." Tony Perkins, president of the religious right Family Research Council, denounced Chafee's move as ''the worst possible form of pandering to liberal groups."