Senate Democrats have scrapped a “good-faith” agreement they made two months ago to allow the Judiciary Committee to vote today on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr.
“This is a new low in our confirmation process,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “Not only because it is virtually unprecedented, but also because it reflects a breach of trust.”
According to Judiciary Committee rules, either party can stall a nomination in committee for only one week, meaning that Judge Alito’s nomination will likely be approved by the panel during an executive committee meeting next Tuesday.
The entire Senate will take up the nomination no later than Jan. 25 and will remain on it until Judge Alito’s nomination is voted up or down, said Eric Ueland, chief of staff for Majority Leader Bill Frist.
“Justice delayed will not be a justice denied, as Sam Alito will receive a fair up-or-down vote and join the Supreme Court before month’s end,” he said. “Any remaining threats to filibuster are just filibluster.”
Although Democratic leaders have not ruled out an attempt to filibuster the nomination, such a maneuver seems increasingly unlikely.
Still, conservatives were furious that Senate Democrats “reneged” on their agreement to vote Judge Alito out of committee in time for a full Senate vote on Friday.
“You know it’s an election year in Washington when people try things like this,” said Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a conservative Catholic-based organization. “The Democrats are going through these gyrations of block and delay for the liberal interest groups who butter their bread.”
Under the terms of the November arrangement presented to reporters by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter and ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy, Republicans agreed to conduct the confirmation hearings after the holidays and Democrats agreed to allow a committee vote on the nomination today.
The only conditions for violating the agreement mentioned at the time by Mr. Leahy was “if something extraordinary comes up that neither Senator Specter nor I anticipate or expect.”
Yesterday, Mr. Leahy was not claiming that anything extraordinary had come up. The only explanation he has offered is that Democrats didn’t want to cut short their Martin Luther King Day holiday.
But, according to his office, the November agreement was not binding anyway because it wasn’t in writing.
In a statement yesterday, Mr. Leahy promised that Democrats on the committee will make no further attempts to delay the nomination.
But when he appeared at the press conference with Mr. Specter on Nov. 3, Mr. Leahy gave the same assurances.
After negotiations that included the Senate leaders of both parties, Mr. Specter said then that the hearings would begin “on the 9th, with the good-faith understanding that our intent would be to go to an executive committee meeting on the 17th, the day after Martin Luther King holiday.”
The agreement was not put in writing, Mr. Specter said at the time, “but Pat Leahy and Arlen Specter have had no problems, nor have anybody on the committee, of not fulfilling what we have said we’d do as a matter of good faith, which will put the executive sessions on the 17th.”
As Mr. Specter spoke to the roomful of reporters, Mr. Leahy stood three feet away and never objected.
After Mr. Specter finished explaining the schedule, Mr. Leahy began by saying, “First, I agree with the chairman.”
When the two men finished, a reporter asked whether the agreement still permitted Democrats to “hold over” the nominee in committee for one week.
“The answer is that, after conferring with all of our colleagues, Senator Leahy and I have proposed what we call good faith intention to have the executive committee meet on the 17th with the vote on that day,” Mr. Specter responded.
Then Mr. Leahy spoke, comparing the agreement to the one reached on the hearing schedule for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
“As you recall, Arlen, we had the same thing with the Roberts case,” he said. “We dealt not with some kind of unanimous consent, but with two senior members of the Senate having commitments. And I think my side, we’d expect that. Obviously, this leaves room if something extraordinary comes up that neither Senator Specter nor I anticipate or expect.”