Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Alito confirmation hearings had been a largely placid affair, but things got downright personal yesterday between members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, accused Democrat Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois of hypocrisy while panel chairman Arlen Specter and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy fell out over mail delivery.

With senators coming and going, Mr. Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, instituted a rule that no more comments could be made about another member unless that member was there to defend himself. At one point, a visibly distraught Martha Alito, who had sat behind her husband through the entire hearings excused herself from the room to regain her composure.

The brouhaha came after many observers had decided that Democrats had been neutered during the first two days, mastering the art of softball pitches. The Washington Post had called the sessions “a most tender roast of Alito.”

Not yesterday.

The sharpest exchange came after Mr. Kennedy accused Mr. Specter of lying about whether he had gotten a letter requesting more information from the Library of Congress that Mr. Kennedy said would shed light on Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s membership in Concerned Alumni of Princeton.

“We actually didn’t get a letter,” Mr. Specter said.

“You did get a letter,” interrupted the Massachusetts Democrat.

Then Mr. Kennedy tried invoking a parliamentary challenge to Mr. Specter, the chairman nearly snapped his little wooden gavel as he called the meeting back to order.

“If I’m going to be denied that, I’d want to give notice to the chair that you’re going to hear it again and again and again and we’re going to have votes of this committee again and again and again until we have a resolution,” Mr. Kennedy said.

A testy Mr. Specter snapped back: “I’m not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again. And I’m the chairman of this committee. … And I’m not going to have you run this committee.”

But Mr. Specter’s staff was later able to get the records Mr. Kennedy wanted without issuing a subpoena.

The most personal exchange came after Mr. Durbin took up the matter of abortion with the nominee.

He told Judge Alito that he could not support a nominee who would not uphold the Supreme Court precedents that guarantee the federal right to abortion. He then quizzed the nominee about the 1985 job application essay he wrote in which he said there was no basis for abortion rights in the Constitution.

When it was Mr. Coburn’s turn to question the nominee, he turned the spotlight to Mr. Durbin.

“For 45 years, Senator Durbin was adamantly pro-life and he wrote multiple, multiple letters expressing that up until 1989,” he said. Today, “he is a very strong advocate for the abortion stance and a free right to choose.”

All the while, a Coburn staffer held aloft a large blue placard of a blown-up letter by Mr. Durbin when he was in the House.

“Thank you very much for taking the time to express your opposition to abortion,” Mr. Durbin wrote in 1989. “I believe we should end abortion on demand, and at every opportunity I have translated this belief into votes in the House of Representatives.”

Mr. Durbin, who had left the hearing room by the time Mr. Coburn’s turn to speak had come, issued a statement explaining his change of position on the matter.

“Senator Durbin reconsidered his position on abortion after meeting with victims of rape and incest and weighing the implications of making all abortions illegal,” spokesman Joe Shoemaker said. “Senator Durbin has always been forthright about his thinking on the subject and has made his position clear to the voters over the course of more than 12 elections. In contrast, Judge Alito has not made clear whether or not he still stands by his 1985 job applications to the Reagan Justice Department.”

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