Political Repercussions of the Alito Nomination

Steve Inskeep talks with News Analyst Cokie Roberts about whether the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito augurs a major fight in the Senate, and how that might play out in the coming weeks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm pleased to announce my nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

INSKEEP: That's President Bush this morning making another nomination to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Samuel Alito is an appeals court judge serving on the 3rd US Circuit Court. That's in the mid-Atlantic states. The 55-year-old has an extensive legal career, which means he has a long record, which means that his nomination has brought out varied reaction among liberals and conservatives looking at that record. President Bush highlighted Alito's Senate confirmation on two past occasions by unanimous consent, and he said he wants Alito on the bench quickly.

Pres. BUSH: I'm confident that the United States Senate will be impressed by Judge Alito's distinguished record, his measured judicial temperament and his tremendous personal integrity. I urge the Senate to act promptly on this important nomination so that an up or down vote is held before the end of this year.

INSKEEP: We're going to get several perspectives on this nomination this morning and we'll start with NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

Don, the president just said he wants him on the bench by the end of the year. Is he going to get that?

DON GONYEA reporting:

It's going to be tight. He wants an up or down vote. Remember, the Harriet Miers hearings were supposed to start next week. And when she withdrew her name from consideration, withdrew her nomination last week--it seems like an eternity ago, almost, at this point here--there was talk on the Hill that, well, that took care of it for this year. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said there's no way this can happen until January at the earliest. Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman, said it would likely be pushed into January. Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader, is saying this morning that, if necessary, if the process is moving along, he would call the Senate back in December, when right now they are not scheduled to be meeting at all, and hold that up or down vote. But there is a lot they have to do; though the White House, mindful of how tight this is going to be, already Judge Alito is heading up to Capitol Hill. He's starting those courtesy calls with senators.

INSKEEP: So we're talking about a contentious confirmation fight that could last for months, and let's go now to NPR's Cokie Roberts to get an early sense of how that fight is going.

What's the reaction been, Cokie?

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Well, Democrats are distressed and say they were not consulted. In fact, the White House made a point of saying that Democrats weren't consulted. And one senior Democrat referred to Judge Alito, to me, as a quote, "right-wing wacko," which is somewhat extreme, and I think that that's where they are. And you meanwhile have some moderate Republicans expressing doubts. Now there might be some moderate Democrats who also express doubt about waging this full-scale fight on a Supreme Court nomination, but I think you're absolutely going to see it and it's likely to drag on. Senator Kennedy has already issued a statement saying, "There are few decisions"--I'm quoting here--"as important as picking a Supreme Court justice and the Senate must not be rushed in considering this nomination."

INSKEEP: Well, now let's look at the Republican reaction here. Harriet Miers was not exactly welcomed by Republicans, but the next choice up seems to be getting a better reception.

ROBERTS: The conservative groups outside of government are ecstatic and issuing statement after statement about how happy they are. And obviously that is what the president chose to do, is to say to those groups which were so harsh against his good friend, Harriet Miers, `All right. You got it.' Now there's a context obviously. There's a context of an indictment against a senior White House aide Scooter Libby last week. There's a context of the war going badly in Iraq and there's the context of the president not seeming to bottom out in public opinion polls. At 39 percent in an ABC poll released yesterday, matching his 39 percent in several other polls, and when you look at the number of people in this country who identify themselves as conservative, it's in the 30-some percent range. So the president is basically just getting his conservative supporters and that's it. So he's decided to make them happy.

INSKEEP: Don Gonyea, does this give the president and his supporters a chance to turn things around after all that bad news that Cokie just mentioned?

GONYEA: Well, what it does is it gives them the opportunity to really control the discussion, the news flow, the stories that we're all talking about for a couple of days at least. But whether it turns things around is a whole 'nother question. We have to see how this goes. And the other story is very much alive, even though it'll be pushed aside a bit for at least some period of time.

INSKEEP: The indictment story, you mean?

GONYEA: The indictment story, yeah.

INSKEEP: Let's bring in now NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who's been with us throughout the morning. And, Nina, I mean, should we assume that this nomination is going to be a huge fight? Is there a way that it could go well and succeed and a way it could go not so well and be a tremendous battle?

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

I think it's going to be a huge fight no matter what, but it can get diminished as a huge fight if Alito does fabulously in these hearings. It seems to me anyway that if he is--if his opponents are able to portray him as extreme, we have the fight and the president loses, even if he wins actually the vote. And he might not win the vote on the Senate floor. If, on the other hand, the portrait that emerges of Alito is of a scholar, of a thoughtful conservative scholar, then it gets very difficult for moderate Democrats to oppose him, especially the ones who are up for re-election, and it, I think, is diminished as an issue at least for now and he's likely to get confirmed. But remember this. They have a very difficult schedule to figure out here. There aren't going to be hearings for a minimum of five or six weeks. That puts it into--given the Thanksgiving holiday, that puts it into December.

INSKEEP: Cokie...

TOTENBERG: And then they can't--and do they really want to leave then the Christmas holidays for a period of campaigning on this nomination?

INSKEEP: With everybody at home?

TOTENBERG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Cokie Roberts, let's talk about another aspect of this. The nominee, the eventual successful nominee will be replacing Sandra Day O'Connor. The nominee in this case, Samuel Alito, is a white male. Does that matter?

ROBERTS: Well, it matters, I think, to the court. And Sandra Day O'Connor, interestingly enough, said that last week. On the day that Harriet Miers withdrew, she said that it was terribly important to have a woman on the court and to not have the number of women on the court by her departure. And I think that it is one of the issues that opponents of Alito can make a deal of. His dissent on the case where he essentially sided with the law saying that married women should get the permission of their husbands or consult with their husbands before they have an abortion. That is the stuff of 30-second ads that will be so easy to make. And I think that that's where you'll see the argument about women.

INSKEEP: Well, now, Don Gonyea, let's wrap up this discussion here with this question. Is the president on more comfortable ground, if not necessarily safer ground, because instead of battling his base, as he has been for the last several weeks, he's back to battling Democrats?

GONYEA: Somebody this morning said that all of the players are on the right side of the playing field now. It's much easier to keep track. It was very confusing with the Harriet Miers...

INSKEEP: WE should say the correct side of the playing field as opposed...

GONYEA: Yeah. From each of their perspectives. He--if he gets a fight this time, he knows who it will be against. And he is much more comfortable when he is arguing with Democrats, when he is portraying them as obstructionists. He will talk about judicial nominees that have stalled over the course of his presidency and it is a fight that may even be the kind of fight he's looking for after what we've just gone through with Harriet Miers and his falling poll numbers and his problems within his own base.

INSKEEP: I know it's early but have their been Republicans that you've heard say, `Hold on a minute. Do we really want this big battle with Democrats?'

ROBERTS: Off the record you have.

GONYEA: Yes, yeah.

TOTENBERG: Yeah.

GONYEA: Exactly.

INSKEEP: They've been wondering if this is the right thing to do.

OK. Well...

ROBERTS: And if this is the right nominee.

INSKEEP: All right. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts. Cokie, thanks very much. NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea is here in the studio along with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. And if you're just waking up, again the news is that Judge Samuel Alito is President Bush's latest nominee to fill the vacancy on the United States Supreme Court. He's urging confirmation by the end of the year.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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