'Gang of 14' Senators Consider Alito, Filibuster

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The nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court has revived the possibility of a judicial filibuster. The Senate's "Gang of 14" — senators from both sides of the aisle who worked out a compromise over filibuster rules earlier this year — are meeting to discuss Alito.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito won't happen before the end of the year, but they will begin shortly after that. That word today from the top Republican and ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. They've scheduled hearings for January 9th. President Bush had urged the Senate to confirm Alito before the holidays.

Meantime today, another group of senators met to discuss Alito's nomination. They are the seven Republicans and seven Democrats who forced a compromise on judicial nominations earlier this year. Today's meeting was prompted by renewed talk that Democrats could use a filibuster or endless debate to block the nomination, and the Gang of 14 may hold the key to whether that happens. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

As Judge Alito began a marathon day meeting with nine senators, the Gang of 14 itself met for half an hour behind closed doors. Virginia Republican John Warner, a founder of the group, emerged to say nothing more had been settled on than that the group would continue to keep meeting.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): And we want to be deferential to the Judiciary Committee. They got the prime responsibility, and, really, our work falls in right after theirs. Thank you very much.

WELNA: Arizona Republican John McCain, who hosted the Gang of 14 gathering, said he, for one, has no misgivings about Alito.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I am obviously very favorably disposed towards his nomination. But to make a conclusion before one hearing is even held is probably not the way that at least the 14 is going to function, as far as I know.

WELNA: The basic understanding of the Gang of 14 is that its members will oppose any judicial filibuster, unless there are what the group calls `extraordinary circumstances.' Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, a moderate who backs abortion rights, is one of several members with qualms about Alito. In his case, he sees a strongly conservative judge being nominated for a high court seat held by a justice who's been a swing voter.

Senator LINCOLN CHAFEE (Republican, Rhode Island): It's Sandra Day O'Connor's seat, and that's an important one. I think red flags would be a little--a little early to say `red flags,' but concerns maybe, caution flags.

WELNA: Indeed, opinions on Alito vary so widely, even among members of the Gang of 14, that Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson felt compelled to make a clarification.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): The Gang is not breaking up, so we'd like to put that rumor to bed.

WELNA: Still, doubts have grown about the cohesion of the Gang of 14 and its ability to head off a blowup over Alito because two of its Republican members, Ohio's Mike DeWine and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, have already declared they see no extraordinary circumstances that could be reason to block his nomination. But Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar insisted the two are still part of the Gang.

Senator KEN SALAZAR (Democrat, Colorado): They were part of the meeting. They very much understand the importance of having a dialogue if, in fact, any one of us in the group gets to the point where we think that the extraordinary circumstances threshold has been met.

WELNA: DeWine, who's said he's ready to eliminate judicial filibusters altogether if Alito's blocked, said today his position is clear to the Gang of 14.

Senator MIKE DeWINE (Republican, Ohio): They knew what I had said, and, you know, I--they're fully aware of what I have said and what Lindsey Graham and I both have said.

WELNA: Which makes Arizona State University judicial nominations expert George Watson wonder how much clout the Gang of 14 really has.

Mr. GEORGE WATSON (Arizona State University): If it's simply the responsibility of each one to decide in his own mind or her own mind what extraordinary circumstances are, then it's not really much of an agreement, it would seem.

WELNA: It's still far from clear whether an intervention by the Gang of 14 will even be needed since Democrats insist they have made no decisions about using a filibuster against Alito. Here's Democratic leader Harry Reid.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): He could get approval from both sides. He could get approval from neither side. I think it's way too early to talk about any procedural barriers to this man. Let's let the hearing work its course and see how things come out.

WELNA: And because that confirmation hearing begins in January, it will be more than two months before the question of whether to filibuster comes to the floor. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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