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Alito Energizes Right and Left

Senate Democrats launched immediate attacks Monday on Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court, criticizing the rationale behind President Bush’s selection and setting the stage for the epic ideological battle that conservatives and liberals have been awaiting for five years.

Both Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, accused Bush of nominating Alito in an effort to divert attention from a series of scandals that have dogged the administration and Congressional GOP.

In addition, Reid and Leahy said Alito’s nomination was a “reward” to “extreme” conservative activists who had previously jousted with Bush over his botched nomination of Harriet Miers, and a bid to shore up their support as he weathers indictments among White House staff and continuing investigations of GOP leaders on Capitol Hill.

“This is an attempt to divert attention from the problems,” Reid told reporters at a Sperling luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

The Minority Leader, who already this year has called Bush a “liar” and a “loser” referred to him Monday as the “Millard Fillmore of the last 100 years,” a reference to the generally undistinguished 1850s president whose middle-ground view on slavery helped doom the Whig Party.

Reid and Alito met Monday afternoon and shared a cursory photo opportunity in which he shook the judge’s hand and said he looked forward to the hearings. He took no questions, a stark contrast to his embrace of the Miers nomination a month ago when he quickly announced that he “liked” her and had brought her name up to Bush during the consultation process.

Later, Leahy agreed that Bush’s pick of Alito was rushed in an effort to move the news cycle away from the indictments of vice presidential adviser Scooter Libby, high gasoline prices and mounting death tolls in Iraq, among other issues.

“Heck, it might all be a matter of coincidence, but I doubt it,” Leahy said after delivering a floor speech that accused Bush of “catering to the extreme wing” of the GOP.

Both Senators said they were irked by what they considered a lack of consultation on the White House’s part before the pick was announced. By the time White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called Reid at 6:45 a.m. Monday, Reid had already heard through the media that Alito was getting the nod.

The White House, Senate Republicans and their outside allies — all of whom were surprisingly slow to rebut attacks against Miers throughout October — pounced on the Alito nomination and began issuing long, detailed memos outlining the judge’s qualifications and statements from his 1990 confirmation to the seat he now holds on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Progress for America, the closest outside group to the White House, immediately announced a nearly $500,000 television ad campaign, slated to begin airing nationally today on CNN and Fox News, in support of Alito’s nomination.

Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) aides dusted off their “Supreme Court Confirmation Center,” a twice- or three-times daily update to reporters and supporters of all the things said in support of the nominee — a courtesy that was not afforded to Miers.

And Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a moderate whose support will be critical in the hearing phase of the nomination, took a first step toward assuring there were no early misunderstandings with the nominee. After a 90-minute meeting with Alito, Specter said he instructed his chief counsel, Michael O’Neil, to call the White House and alert Bush’s aides to the fact that Alito had voiced his support for a right to privacy as laid out in the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case — an area that had led to a Specter-Miers confrontation several weeks ago.

The chairman declared that nothing in the judge’s background “hardly measured up to the standard” that would allow for a filibuster under the “Gang of 14” deal that averted the “nuclear” option showdown last spring.

The first two Supreme Court nominations this year did not necessitate a central role for the Gang, the seven Republicans and seven Democrats involved in the pact that allowed for a half dozen previously filibustered appellate court nominees to be approved without altering the Senate’s rules. But this nomination has the potential to put those Senators back into the spotlight, particularly the seven Democrats. With some Republicans in the deal voicing praise for Alito Monday, including Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio), Alito may have a slight majority in his corner to start out the process.

If he retains a similar amount of support after his hearings, the Democrats only hope of blocking Alito could be a filibuster showdown, which would re-start the fight over the chamber’s rules on nominations. Reid sounded two themes on Monday, at one point saying it was too early to talk about filibusters but also leaving open the option of all parliamentary tactics “if he’s extreme in some of his feelings and opinions.”

Initial statements from Democrats involved in the Gang of 14 were mostly neutral, such as that of Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), who helped lead the seven Democrats involved in those talks. Nelson gave no hint of how he was leaning and merely said he was “looking forward to learning more about Judge Samuel Alito. Judge Alito needs to have a fair and thorough hearing and we should withhold judgment until that process unfolds.”

The group is expected to convene a meeting later this week.

Liberal activists, who had previously held their fire in the immediate aftermath of the nominations of Miers and Chief Justice John Roberts, came out swinging against Alito. Several announced outright opposition to Alito, who has issued opinions that would restrict abortion rights, while others announced deep reservations.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who set the stage for the biggest ideological Supreme Court battle of this generation in 1987 with a quick denunciation of Robert Bork, said the Alito selection “took the nation a step backwards.”

Leahy joined Reid and other Democrats in suggesting that the hearing process should begin after Jan. 1 in order to fully vet the nominee. “It’s far more important to do it right than to do it fast,” Leahy said in his floor speech.

But Frist and the White House signaled their desire to push through hearings and a confirmation vote before Christmas so that Alito can be on the court when it begins oral arguments on Jan. 9.

That leaves Specter in the middle of a fight on timing, an issue he sidestepped Monday by citing the likelihood of a massive “paper trail” involving about 3,750 cases and 350 opinions Alito was involved in. As for December hearings, Specter said, “I do not know that that is realistic. I do not know that that is unrealistic.”