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House Democrats to Take Higher Profile on Alito

After assuming a relatively quiet posture on the two most recent Supreme Court nominees, House Democrats are planning to mount a more vocal and organized campaign questioning appeals court Judge Samuel Alito’s ascension to the high court.

House Democratic leaders began their efforts Monday morning, shortly after President Bush tapped Alito, by distributing talking points to Members urging them to speak up about the party’s concerns. House leaders say they will take their lead from and play backup to Senate Democrats, while coordinating with outside constituency groups who are trying to generate grass-roots opposition to Alito’s nomination.

Specifically, House Democrats will help make the Senate Democrats’ case that the Bush administration is seeking to divide the country with what they say is a controversial and extreme nominee, while arguing voters are disappointed that the president ignored diversity in selecting another white male.

Democrats will also argue that the Senate must take its time deliberating the Alito selection, and should not “be rushed or held to an arbitrary deadline.” Bush urged that the Senate act on the nomination by year’s end.

Quick to take a lead in the Democratic Caucus, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) on Monday vowed to work with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) to “ensure that the views of the House Democratic Caucus are known to the Senate during its review of the nomination.” She said the Supreme Court must not be “used as a tool by extremists” and raised concerns about Alito’s past rulings on the right to privacy, civil rights and labor protections.

“The president’s nomination of Judge Alito reflects weakness,” Pelosi charged. “The president is unable or unwilling to withstand pressure by an extreme element in our country, rather than acting as a leader of all the people.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) said in an interview that the Alito nomination “needs to have a hard look at it” given he would serve as a critical swing vote on “a whole host of issues” including civil, consumer and privacy rights. He said the decision ultimately rests with the Senate, but vowed House Democrats will not stay quiet, particularly if Republicans attempt to invoke the “nuclear” option to prevent a possible filibuster of Alito’s nomination.

“To the extent we can serve as an echo chamber to the concerns about Judge Alito’s judicial philosophy and if on the court the changes he would make to the law of the land then yes Democrats in the House will be very vocal, and very active in that regard,” Menendez said.

Democrats, including Pelosi, were virtually silent during the recently aborted nomination of Harriet Miers, which drew widespread criticism from conservatives.

When Bush named now-Chief Justice John Roberts, pockets of House Democratic opposition surfaced to his nomination from those arguing he did not provide adequate answers to Senate questioning, but House leaders did not try to organize widespread Member resistance.

Democratic sources expect the same Members who opposed Roberts’ confirmation, including female and minority Members, to speak up even more loudly about Alito. Events could be held as early as this week to highlight the appeals court judge’s previous decisions as they relate to discrimination and women’s rights, those sources said.

One Democratic leadership aide said House Members are still figuring out the extent of their role in the nomination process, but will follow the Senate’s lead in raising questions and concerns. This staffer said it is appropriate that House Democrats get involved, even though they are powerless when it comes to vote, because Alito’s confirmation could mean major changes in court decisions.

“It’s a pivotal seat,” said the staffer, adding: “This is going to be a big deal.”

Alito would replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a swing vote on the court.

“You are going to see House Democrats being more vocal with Alito,” said another senior Democratic staffer. “Democrats think they have a duty to speak up and highlight the concerns being raised by the mainstream about the impact and tiling of the Supreme Court this nominee will have.

“We have no choice but to weigh in on our side.”

“President Bush has nominated a man to the Supreme Court to satisfy far right-wing organizations that doomed the nomination of Harriet Miers,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). “Rather than picking a conservative judge whose values are consistent with those of most Americans, President Bush has nominated a judge whose rulings have been out of the mainstream on a woman’s right to choose, workers’ rights and civil rights, and the separation of church and state.”