Senate Ends Debate on Alito Nomination; Vote Nears

An effort to mount a filibuster against Judge Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court failed in the Senate Monday. By a vote of 72-25, senators have moved to end floor debate on Alito's nomination. A final Senate vote on his confirmation is to be held Tuesday.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. An effort to mount a filibuster against Judge Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination has failed in the Senate. Senators have voted to end a floor debate on Alito's nomination that began last Wednesday. A final Senate vote on his confirmation will be held tomorrow.

SIEGEL: Here are two clips from today's debate. First, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry. He said that too much is at stake to stop debating Alito's nomination.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The direction that our country will take for the next 30 years is being set now. And this is the time for debate. This is the time when it counts, not after the Supreme Court has granted the executive the right to use torture or to eavesdrop without warrants, not after a woman's right to privacy has been taken away.

NORRIS: Mitch McConnell, the Senate's number two Republican, argued that no Supreme Court nominee with the backing of a majority of senators has ever been blocked by a filibuster.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): Mr. President, we stand today on the brink of a new and reckless effort by a few to deny the rights of many to exercise our constitutional duty to advise and consent, to give this man the simple up or down vote he deserves. The Senate should repudiate this tactic.

SIEGEL: And it did. Joining us now is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. David, was this filibuster effort doomed from the start?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Robert, I'd say it was a very long shot ever since Alito got through his confirmation hearings more than two weeks ago without any major stumbles or new embarrassing revelations. You know, last year, a bipartisan group of senators calling itself the Gang of 14 got together to head off a meltdown in the Senate over judicial filibusters, and they agreed such a filibuster was only warranted under what they called extraordinary circumstances. And I think the simple fact was that although most Democrats think Alito's too conservative for the high court, not enough of them today felt a filibuster was in order to stop him.

SIEGEL: Well, what were the main arguments for mounting a filibuster?

WELNA: Well, one made by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, who really led the filibuster drive, was that Alito's nomination is an extraordinary circumstance, because a judge with a very conservative record would be replacing a swing voter, Sandra Day O'Connor, on the court, pushing it to the right, according to Kerry. Kerry also said that a filibuster is the only way for the minority to have a real voice in the selection process of a Supreme Court nominee and to be the voice for those who don't have a voice.

But Republicans said this was simply an effort to stop someone who likely won't rule on the court the way that liberal groups want him to rule. And, as Majority Whip McConnell put it, if a filibuster against Alito were sustained, a new precedent would be set in the Senate for thwarting the will of the majority, and he said Republicans would feel they could do the same to an eventual Democratic president's high court nominee.

SIEGEL: Now, once again, what happened today is the closing down of debate, cloture. But tomorrow comes the actual vote on Alito.

WELNA: Yes, at 11:00 tomorrow morning. And I'd say that Alito's prospects for joining the high court tomorrow are excellent. At least four Democrats in the Senate say they'll vote for Alito, and only one Republican, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, has said he'll oppose him. So that gives Alito at least seven more votes than the 51 he needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

SIEGEL: So he could actually be sworn in in time for the State of the Union Address.

WELNA: That's right, and that's exactly what Republicans wanted, and I'm sure we're going to hear about that from President Bush tomorrow evening. I think that we're probably also going to hear that judicial filibusters are a thing of the past. Majority Leader Frist said so on the Senate floor. And I think that it's true that in fact there is greater reluctance among Democrats in the Senate to resort to a filibuster, at least in the cases of John Roberts and Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court.

But I think we're also going to see Alito going to the bench with the blessing of a decidedly divided Senate, and I think this battle over his nomination will be remembered for getting through the Senate, but not by much.

SIEGEL: Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR congressional correspondent David Welna talking to us from the Capitol.

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