Kerry Eyes Filibuster over Alito Nomination

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito enters the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) for a meeting Friday i i

hide captionSupreme Court nominee Samuel Alito enters the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) for a meeting Friday.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito enters the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) for a meeting Friday

Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito enters the office of Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) for a meeting Friday.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Just as Democratic opponents appeared resigned over the likely confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court, Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) is pushing for a filibuster of the nomination.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

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

And I'm Michele Norris. The nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court is thought to be all but a done deal. At least three Democrats plan to vote for him next week, when his confirmation vote takes place on the Senate floor. And even most of his opponents have conceded that they won't be able to block him with a filibuster.

BLOCK: But a filibuster is exactly what Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is proposing. The Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, and possibly a candidate again in 2008, Kerry returned today from Switzerland to speak on the floor of the Senate.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Now, I know it's an uphill battle. I've heard my colleagues, many of them. I hear the arguments. You know, reserve your gunpowder for the future. Well, what is the future if it changes so, so dramatically at this moment in time? What happens to those people who count on us to stand up and protect them now, not later, not at some future time? This is the choice for the court now. And I reject those notions that there ought to somehow be some political calculus about the future.

BLOCK: Kerry warned that if Alito fills Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat, the high court will tilt dangerously to the right. Most of his fellow Democratic senators agree, but they're not at all in agreement on whether a filibuster is in order. Joining me now is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna, and, David, why is Kerry pushing for a filibuster?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, there's been a lot of frustration among Democrats and liberal interest groups with how this conservative judge, who'd be replacing a woman who was repeatedly the decisive swing vote on the court, has emerged pretty much unscathed from his confirmation hearings, and now a majority of senators say they'll vote for him. And so for the minority, a filibuster is really the only way they can stop a train like that. And I think, quite frankly, this is also a chance for Kerry to burnish his credentials with people in groups who might back him should he try again for the White House next election.

BLOCK: Well, how is his call for a filibuster being received?

WELNA: Well, Republicans are having a lot of fun with the fact that Kerry happened to be at the Davos Economic Summit in Switzerland yesterday when he issued his call for a filibuster. White House spokesman Scott McClellan maybe got off the best line today when he said even for a senator it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps. I suspect this is the last time we'll see Kerry issue such a call from that location.

And, as for Kerry's fellow Democrats, they haven't been exactly rushing to second his call for a filibuster except for the other senator from Massachusetts, Edward Kennedy. I think many Democrats are wary about attempting a filibuster after all the strife that tore the Senate over lower court nominees being blocked by filibusters. And there are also a number of Senate Democrats facing reelection bids this year in states that President Bush carried last election. Two of them have already said they're voting for Alito, and a third, North Dakota's Kent Conrad, came out strongly against a filibuster today after meeting with Alito, without saying whether he'll vote for or against him.

BLOCK: We heard Senator Kerry say that he knows this filibuster fight is an uphill battle. Does he have anywhere near the votes he would need to sustain a filibuster?

WELNA: Well, you need 60 votes out of 100 in the Senate to quash a filibuster, and at this point it looks like there are at least that many votes, possibly 70 votes. So unless a lot of minds are changed over the weekend for this vote on Monday afternoon, I think this filibuster effort is going to amount mainly to a principled stand for those who back it. But those Democrats who oppose it, and Kerry referred to this in the clip that we just heard, they worry that when a Democrat's in the White House, Senate Republicans will point to Monday's vote as a precedent for using a filibuster to block Supreme Court nominees even if they enjoy majority support in the Senate.

BLOCK: So, David, what happens next week?

WELNA: Well, I'd say given the bleak prospects for sustaining a filibuster, Alito is virtually certain to be confirmed, since he already has more than the 51 votes he needs. And that final vote that would put him on the court is to take place next Tuesday morning. Republicans have been pushing hard for it to happen by then, because Tuesday evening President Bush delivers his State of the Union Address, and after having nominated three different people for this post, I'm sure Mr. Bush is eager to proclaim to the nation that he's finally prevailed in this saga.

BLOCK: NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. Thanks very much.

WELNA: Sure.

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