Thursday, November 3, 2005

A key Senate Democrat said yesterday that he has reached a “comfort level” with Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.

But Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a member of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” that can determine if Democrats filibuster the nominee, also warned that it was still early.

“At this point in time, I have a comfort level that I’m satisfied with,” he told reporters after meeting with Judge Alito yesterday. “I’m anxious to see the rest of the hearing process work and the whole confirmation process unfold.”

Judge Alito also met yesterday with two other key Senate Democrats, who at least tepidly praised him, though they did not express the same amount as did Mr. Nelson.

“He was very forthcoming,” said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He called the meeting with Judge Alito a “very pleasant one” but said it was premature to discuss whether Democrats will filibuster the nomination.

“I don’t know a single Democrat who has said it is time for a filibuster or we should seriously consider it,” Mr. Durbin said. “It is way too early in this process.”

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary panel, said the questions his colleagues have are not about qualifications.

“He is certainly competent,” Mr. Leahy said after meeting with the nominee. “This is a whole issue about ideology.”

He warned that replacing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in “a swing seat” meant that he did “not want somebody who’s going to fulfill a right-wing litmus test.”

Mr. Nelson will huddle today with the rest of the Gang of 14, who have become pivotal in deciding whether judicial nominees are filibustered and whether the Republican Senate will ban such filibusters.

The members will discuss whether any concerns could be elevated to “extraordinary circumstances,” which the group’s May deal declared as the only situation in which it will back a filibuster.Mr. Durbin blamed that talk of filibusters on Republicans with an eye toward keeping conservatives unified behind Judge Alito.

In fact, at least one Democrat — Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa — has called for a filibuster of the Alito nomination. At least three more — including Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts — have said the filibuster remains a viable option. Several others have pointedly declined to rule out a filibuster.

In terms of his own comfort level with the nominee, Mr. Durbin said Judge Alito fell somewhere between Harriet Miers — whose nomination was withdrawn last week — and John G. Roberts Jr. — who is now chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Justice Roberts was the “Elvis of Supreme Court nominees,” Mr. Durbin said, and Miss Miers was so uncomfortable that it made him feel uncomfortable.

“I never got the feeling that she wanted to be in that chair,” he said. “I think she was following the request of a president she admires very much to pursue this and she was very concerned she would say the wrong thing.”

Mr. Nelson said he discussed the issue of judicial philosophy at great length with Judge Alito.

“He assured me that he wants to go to the bench without a political agenda, he’s not bringing a hammer and chisel to hammer away and chisel away on existing law, that he wants to decide each case as it comes before him,” Mr. Nelson said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican, continued hammering out a schedule with Mr. Leahy and other Democrats.

President Bush has asked that Judge Alito be confirmed by year’s end while Democrats say that proper hearings cannot be conducted before January.

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