Democrats said yesterday that they may block the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., depending on the answers the nominee gives at his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, which begin today.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and a member of the committee, said that if Judge Alito refuses to answer questions on issues that Democrats deem vital, the party will be more likely to block the nomination.
“If he continuously, given his previous record, refused to answer questions and hid behind ‘I can’t answer this because it might come before me,’ it would increase the chances of a filibuster,” Mr. Schumer said.
Also yesterday, another Judiciary Committee Democrat said she would likely block the nomination if she concludes that Judge Alito would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared abortion a constitutional right.
“If I believed he was going to go in there and overthrow Roe … most likely ‘yes,’” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, when asked on “Fox News Sunday” whether she would filibuster the nomination.
In 1985, Judge Alito wrote an application essay for a job in the Reagan administration, saying the Constitution contains no right to abortion.
Republicans, meanwhile, prepared to defend President Bush’s nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and have laid the groundwork to assure Judge Alito’s confirmation.
Majority Leader Bill Frist has said all along that he would employ the “nuclear option” to ban judicial filibusters if Democrats lodge one against this nominee. But Mr. Frist doesn’t have public commitments from the 50 senators whom he would need to ban the filibusters.
A deal on judicial nominees struck among the “Gang of 14” senators — seven Republicans and seven Democrats — requires that Democrats allow an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees except under “extraordinary circumstances.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and one of the “Gang of 14,” said yesterday that Mr. Frist would get his vote if Democrats blocked Judge Alito based on his stance on abortion or Roe v. Wade.
“I would consider that not only not an extraordinary circumstance, but a threat to the independence of the judiciary, and I would stop it in its tracks with my vote,” he said on Fox.
For two months, Democrats have exhaustively researched Judge Alito’s personal background and his record as a federal judge.
Starting with their opening statements today, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will begin a broad array of attacks on the nominee’s judicial philosophy, personal integrity and credibility.
A primary focus of the hearings, Democrats say, will be Judge Alito’s position on presidential authority, especially in light of the recent New York Times leak that revealed Mr. Bush’s approval of warrantless spying on international communications involving terrorism suspects.
“Those issues are front and center in terms of the national dialogue,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, on ABC’s “This Week.”
Democrats also have begun challenging Judge Alito’s credibility and integrity.
For instance, Mr. Kennedy criticized Judge Alito for not recusing himself from a case involving Vanguard Corp., which handles the judge’s investment portfolio.
Democrats also criticized Judge Alito for touting his membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton, which once opposed the acceptance of women at the university.
Originally, Democrats had included freelance writer Stephen R. Dujack in their witness list for the hearings. Mr. Dujack says the organization, which was founded the year Judge Alito graduated — 1972, opposed the admission of women and minorities at Princeton.
Mr. Dujack was removed from the witness list, however, after it was revealed that Mr. Dujack once wrote a column that compared killing animals for food to killing Jews during the Holocaust.
Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and Judiciary chairman, said he expects a Jan. 17 vote in his panel on the nomination, paving the way for a vote by the full Senate on Jan. 20.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said yesterday that Democrats may not stick to that schedule.
“Obviously, if he doesn’t answer the questions, then it gets out of my control,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “Some senator would move to hold it over. Let’s hope we get all the answers so that doesn’t happen.”
Mr. Kennedy added, “There’s no plan at the present time, but we’re not eliminating any procedural actions by the Senate members or by the Democratic leadership.”