WASHINGTON – Jan. 9 is the start date agreed to by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (search) and Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy (search) for the confirmation hearing of nominee Samuel Alito to become a U.S. Supreme Court associate justice.
Specter outlined a timetable that envisions five days of hearings, followed by a vote in committee on Jan. 17 and the full Senate on Jan. 20.
Specter announced the schedule as Alito was making the rounds on Capitol Hill (search), speaking with several members of the so-called "Gang of 14" centrist senators who have helped expedite judicial confirmations.
The Gang of 14 (search) met Thursday morning and several of its members issued statements saying the group is still operating as a unit on the nomination of Alito, who has not yet been the target of talks of a possible filibuster.
But at least two of the Gang of 14's Republicans already say there's no chance a filibuster would succeed.
"I don't believe that, with all sincerity, I could let that happen," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said before the meeting with group members about the federal appeals court judge who President Bush nominated to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search).
Graham and Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, took their anti-filibuster message to the other Senate centrists at a meeting in Sen. John McCain's office Thursday.
"People like Lindsey Graham and I, who were part of that group, I think you can bet we'll be willing to vote to change the rules of the Senate so that we do not have a filibuster (search)," DeWine said hours after Alito's nomination was announced.
Click in the video box above to watch a report by FOX News' Brian Wilson.
After the group's meeting on Alito, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., told reporters there was "a sense that we're still together and keeping this a civil and orderly process at this point."
He said the Gang of 14 "is not going to blow up."
The group's Democrats were urging them to withhold judgment, saying a thorough investigation of Alito's writings and decisions needs to be completed. McCain said he is "favorably disposed" toward the nominee, but wants to let the Senate Judiciary Committee do its work.
"I can report the old gang of mine is still together, alive and well," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., told FOX News after the meeting. "I think we came out of this meeting feeling united, proud of our ability to go across party lines and get something done ... but all of us agree it's really early and we're going to learn a lot about Judge Alito before we vote."
Asked before the meeting about DeWine and Graham's comments on how Alito should not be filibustered, Salazar told FOX News: "There are a lot of good people who are in that group of 14 … what we need is more time to get to a decision … I think it's too early to be prejudging anything on this nomination."
No one on the Democratic side has used the word "filibuster," although several liberals have said that all options should remain on the table.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., also a member of the gang, said he hasn't heard a Democrat talk about a filibuster and added, "I'd rather not hear any of my colleagues on the other side talk about it as well."
Nelson added that he is reserving judgment on Alito, but seemed pleased with the nominee's promises of impartiality.
The Gang of 14 formed earlier in the year to support filibusters only in "extraordinary circumstances" and defuse talk of the so-called "nuclear option" (search) that would prevent Democrats from using a filibuster to stall the nomination. The defection of even two members from one side of the group would virtually ensure that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., would win a filibuster showdown if Democrats tried to prevent an up-or-down vote on Alito.
Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, and while confirmation requires a simple majority, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. Democrats, with 45 votes counting Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords, need 40 votes in order to hold up a filibuster.
Democrats can't get to 40 votes if seven Democrats remain in the Gang of 14. For Republicans to eliminate the filibuster, they too would need two Republicans to split from the gang. That would bring the Republican vote back to 50, and with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney, Alito would be confirmed with majority support.
So far, no one is talking about any "extraordinary circumstances" surrounding Alito's nomination.
"The general consensus was that we didn't know enough to reach a conclusion about whether there are extreme or extraordinary circumstances that would justify a filibuster. The real point is that we're together," Lieberman told FOX News.
Any member who at some point feels it's necessary to filibuster is supposed to tell the Gang of 14 before doing so, Lieberman added.
"Each one of us is obliged to come back to the group and talk it over … I think that's healthy," he said. "This is a real important nomination, we don't want to rush into it."
A Question of Timing
Several officials said Specter made his preference clear on the timing of a hearing in meetings with panel Republicans and later at a session with Frist and Democrats.
Democrats have cited a need to review the voluminous record that Alito has compiled in 15 years as a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a reason to hold off the confirmation until after the new year. The 55-year-old judge has written an estimated 300 rulings and participated in roughly 1,500 cases.
The National Archives issued a statement Thursday saying its staff would need several weeks to complete a search of Department of Justice records for any material pertaining to Alito. The agency also is seeking documents about Alito's public service at the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidential libraries. The hope is records of his work for those administrations might shed light on Alito's actions or views, the statement said.
Alito also was a federal prosecutor in his home state of New Jersey before his confirmation as an appeals court judge.
Earlier in the week, Leahy, who has been unwilling to characterize in any way his meeting with Alito, said it was not possible to hold honest or fair hearings before the new year.
"It's far more important to do it right that to do it fast," Leahy said.
Some Republicans noted that a vote in January — before Bush's State of the Union address — could allow the president to claim an early political success in the new year. They also said it could be politically risky to have Alito testify in December, then allow several weeks to elapse before a vote by the full Senate. That would allow liberal critics to mount a nationwide campaign for his rejection.
Most Dems Wait to Hear More
Since Monday, Alito has met with more than a dozen senators in courtesy calls.
On Thursday, he met with Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Robert Bennett, R-Utah, just off the Senate floor.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., talked with Alito on the steps outside the Capitol. A supporter of abortion rights, Chafee said he raised the issue with the nominee in their brief meeting. "We were able to have a candid conversation that I prefer to keep confidential," he said.
Like other senators, Chafee said he was withholding his judgment about the nomination until after the hearings. But he expressed his feelings in a distinctive way. "As a horseman, I know the first step when you meet a horse is to take it easy, take it slow," he said.
"This is an extraordinary nominee," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., "I'm not concerned about a lot of little things. This man is an experienced nominee and I believe you'll see he'll be confirmed."
While he said he was happy with responses Alito gave him on topics like the First Amendment and freedom of religion, as well as supporting the idea of stare decisis, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Thursday he also has not yet made up his mind about the nominee.
"I will when I hear what he says before the Judiciary Committee and when I read more about him," Byrd said. "Overall, I was very impressed with his ... intellectual powers with respect to the law. He's certainly well-fitted in that regard for the Supreme Court. But I want to read and hear more."
But Democratic National Committee Howard Dean doesn't seem to be reserving judgment.
"Preliminary indications on Judge Alito is that he's well out of the mainstream of American jurisprudence, especially standing up for women's rights in sexual harassment cases, especially countenancing all white juries who convict black defendants," Dean told FOX News on Thursday. "These are areas in which Judge Alito has been well outside what the courts have been doing in the last 40 years. I don't think that's the right thing for America. We'll see what happens in the Senate."
Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers told FOX News that although she would "love to see a filibuster" of Alito, that procedural move so far seems "very unlikely."
"So far, he's been getting a pretty good response. That said, he hasn't met with all of [the senators], the hearings haven't even started ... very few people have even committed to supporting him [publicly] at this point," Powers said.
Some Democratic supporters have suggested that by filling the swing vote of O'Connor, Alito would turn his back on abortion rights and undermine the court's prior decisions in cases like Griswold v. Connecticut (search), which is the underpinning for Roe v. Wade (search), the landmark 1973 abortion rights law.
The conclusion comes in part from Alito's sole dissent in 1991's Planned Parenthood v. Casey (search), in which the 3rd Circuit Court struck down a Pennsylvania law that required women seeking abortions to notify their spouses. That court is considered one of the more liberal circuit courts in the country.
"He has an excellent academic background and he's a good writer," Salazar told FOX News. "What troubles me about him is he's a judge on the third circuit who's dissented the most ... I don't know if Judge Alito's in the mainstream of American legal thought."
Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute said although groups on the far-left could seek out allies in the Senate to give Alito a tough time, "I think the American people are tired of all this bickering they have seen."
He added: "He's been confirmed twice before. It would be rather hard to say he's not qualified at this juncture."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.