Senate Democrats and Republicans — along with interest groups both for and against Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s Supreme Court nomination — fell into formation yesterday to begin the battle they’ve been expecting for more than a decade.
“This one is going to be Armageddon,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican and former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, acknowledged that the fight will be tough, but predicted confirmation before the end of the year.
“In 1990, a Democrat-controlled Senate unanimously confirmed Judge Alito as a circuit judge,” Mr. Frist said in a statement dispatched 27 minutes before President Bush announced his selection. “I hope that my colleagues will give his nomination a fair opportunity this time as well.”
Moments later, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee, took to the ramparts opposite Mr. Frist.
“It is sad that the president felt he had to pick a nominee likely to divide America instead of choosing a nominee in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor, who would unify us,” he said. “This controversial nominee, who would make the court less diverse and far more conservative, will get very careful scrutiny from the Senate and from the American people.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking minority on the Judiciary Committee, called the nomination “needlessly provocative.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, expressed doubt that hearings could be held before the end of the year.
Republicans rushed to point out that Judge Alito already has been unanimously confirmed by the Senate, once as U.S. attorney and once to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. But Democrats said the stakes are much higher now that he’s nominated for the Supreme Court seat held by retiring Justice O’Connor.
Justice O’Connor is often a crucial swing vote on the high court.
Off Capitol Hill, interest groups were quick to draw the battle lines.
Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, vowed to mobilize 750,000 activists “to wage a massive national effort to defeat Judge Alito’s nomination.”
Mr. Bush “has chosen to divide Americans with a nominee guaranteed to cause a bitter fight,” Mr. Neas said in a statement issued nine minutes before Mr. Bush introduced Judge Alito.
The conservative group Concerned Women for America, which called for the withdrawal of Mr. Bush’s previous nominee Harriet Miers, said Judge Alito was an “outstanding choice.”
With partisans on both sides taking strident positions, Senate centrists emerged as the likely arbiters of Judge Alito’s fate. Particular focus fell on the so-called “Gang of 14.”
Under a deal reached in May, seven Democrats agreed to defy their leadership on any filibusters unless “extraordinary circumstances” exist. In exchange, seven Republicans agreed to defy their leadership in a vote to ban judicial filibusters unless Democrats abuse the filibuster.
Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican who is one of those 14, said Judge Alito has “an impressive record of legal accomplishments.”
“Following the hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, there is a potential for the Gang of 14 to perform a pivotal — if not decisive — role.”
Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, another of the 14, expressed disappointment in the nomination.
The freshman Democrat said he was dismayed that “there was no consultation whatsoever with members of the Senate” over the choice, which he said was part of deal the “Gang of 14” senators hashed out.
“That is disrespectful,” Mr. Salazar said.
Asked her thoughts on the nomination, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat and one of the 14, shrugged and rolled her eyes.
“I would say I have some concerns,” she said later.
However, fellow Gang of 14 member Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, called Judge Alito “a great pick” and appears to him “to be in the mainstream of conservative judges.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who also is a member of the group, said Judge Alito’s “qualifications are beyond reproach.”
“Efforts to filibuster this nomination based on his conservative judicial philosophy will only serve to weaken all three branches of our government,” he warned.
Such warnings went unheeded yesterday by some.
“If confirmed, Alito could very well fundamentally alter the balance of the court and push it dangerously to the right,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.
Republicans pounced on the statement, comparing it with Mr. Kennedy’s statement 15 years ago during Judge Alito’s confirmation hearing to the 3rd Circuit.
“You have obviously had a very distinguished record, and I certainly commend you for long service in the public interest,” Mr. Kennedy said then. “I think it is a very commendable career, and I am sure you will have a successful one as a judge.”