DAVID WELNA reporting:
I'm David Welna at the Capitol.
Judge Alito went from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda this morning, where he joined Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to view the remains lying in honor there of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Coming out of the Rotunda, Alito ran into an old friend, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, who offered him words of encouragement.
Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): You did well this morning. And
Judge SAMUEL ALITO (US Supreme Court Nominee): Thank you very much. That was a great honor.
Sen. SESSIONS: And you've had the kind of unique experience, it's put you right there. You're ready for the job.
Judge ALITO: Thank you, Senator.
WELNA: Sessions is on the Judiciary Committee that's to hold hearings on Alito's nomination. Both he and Alito were US attorneys, and Sessions says Alito was one of the most popular.
Sen. SESSIONS: Everybody just liked him. They knew he had this extraordinary reputation for skill. He'd been the deputy to the solicitor general, arguing 12 cases before the Supreme Court. But he had a way of carrying himself that indicated he didn't have ego problems, that he was a decent person.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I think every conservative in America ought to be pretty tickled with this nominee.
WELNA: That's Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, another Judiciary panel member. He, too, had nothing but good things to say about Alito. Hatch said although Alito's a conservative, he has no idea of whether he'd vote to overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision recognizing a woman's right to abortion.
Sen. HATCH: I think it's premature to judge him on the issue of abortion. He happens to believes in the principle of stare decisis. It's not an invalid principle. Nobody believes it should be.
(Soundbite of photos being taken)
WELNA: At a photo op Alito attended with Republican Senate leaders, Majority Leader Frist acknowledged there could be a very tough confirmation process ahead.
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): There's going to be a lot of positioning from a political standpoint, and I think you've seen it. And it's from some expected voices up on both sides of the aisle. As leadership, we're going to plow through that and we're going to stay above it. And it's going to be tough. People know the climate here in Washington right now is very partisan.
WELNA: Asked whether he was apprehensive about setting off a big Senate fight over his nomination, Alito had a bland reply.
Judge ALITO: I'm just looking forward to working with the Senate in the confirmation process. And I will do everything I can to cooperate with them and to discuss my record as a judge and the record of what I've done during the other stages of my legal career.
WELNA: Late in the day after meeting with Alito, Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter, who supports abortion rights, said Alito embraced the court ruling that opened the way for the Roe vs. Wade decision on a woman's right to abortion.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Judiciary Committee): He believes there is a right to privacy under the liberty clause of the United States Constitution. And he believes that the rights apply to singles as well as married under the interpretation of Griswold vs. Connecticut, and he says that he accepts Griswold vs. Connecticut as good law.
WELNA: For their part, Senate Democrats chided President Bush for not choosing a woman or a minority to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. The Judiciary panel's top Democrat, Patrick Leahy, also cited significant concerns about Alito's record.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): His opinions from the federal bench demonstrate that he'd go to great lengths to restrict the authority of Congress to enact protective legislation, to protect in the areas of civil rights, consumer protection, the rights of workers, consumers and women.
WELNA: Asked whether Democrats might filibuster Alito's nomination, New York Democrat Charles Schumer would not rule that out.
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): It's too early to tell. Nothing is on the table, and nothing is off the table. Let's learn more about Judge Scalia.
WELNA: Schumer meant to say Judge Alito, but his slip shows how much Democrats view Alito as a soul mate of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of that court's most conservative members. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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