WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) said Friday that he is disappointed he won't get a new Supreme Court justice by Christmas as he wanted.
Senate confirmation hearings for Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito (search), are set to begin Jan. 9, with the intention of a final confirmation vote on Jan. 20. The president had called for a pre-Christmas confirmation for the conservative judge.
"I'm disappointed in the date but happy they do have a firm date for his confirmation hearing," Bush said while in Mar del Plata, Argentina, for the 34-nation Summit of the Americas.
The president plugged his nominee, whom he announced Monday as his pick to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (search), a swing vote on contentious issues such as abortion and affirmative action. Alito is Bush's second nomine for the job; White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination last week after withering criticism from conservatives.
"Sam Alito Jr. is an incredibly intelligent, well-qualified person who should be on the court," Bush said.
Sen. Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said after negotiations with Senate Democrats, that meeting Bush's schedule request wasn't possible.
"It just couldn't be done," Specter said. "We have to do it right. We can't do it fast."
"We will be going on a very fast pace," said the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy (search) of Vermont. "But we're doing one that is reasonable."
Some conservatives are upset that Alito will have to wait until 2006 to get his vote in the Senate. They note there will be 81 days between the president's announcement of Alito's nomination and his scheduled confirmation vote.
"It appears that partisan stalling tactics have triumphed over a fair and timely confirmation process," said Tony Perkins (search), president of the conservative Family Research Council.
There were 73 days between Justice Stephen Breyer's nomination and confirmation in 1994; it took Ruth Bader Ginsburg 50 days in 1993.
Chief Justice John Roberts (search) matched the 72-day nomination-to-confirmation average this year.
The White House says it is satisfied with the Alito schedule, which gives the federal judge a committee vote on Jan. 17 and full Senate debate the very next day.
Specter "conducted hearings that were fair and dignified for Chief Justice John Roberts," White House spokesman Stephen Schmidt said. "We're gratified that he's again leading this process in the Senate and are very pleased that there seems to be bipartisan momentum gathering for a vote on Jan. 20."
Some Democrats have raised the possibility of a filibuster (search) — an attempt to prevent final action on the nomination — and Leahy stopped short of committing to a vote in the full Senate on Jan. 20.
Specter acknowledged that "lurking below the surface is a concern for a filibuster" and said pushing the start of hearings to January "takes away a principal argument for those who would say the Senate is rushing."
The date was announced as Alito, a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, courted Senate support in assembly-line fashion, using a room off the Senate floor as an impromptu office while lawmakers rotated through.
"He's the man!" Sen. Trent Lott (search), R-Miss., declared after his meeting with Alito.
Since Monday, Alito has met with almost two dozen senators as he works to build up the support that Miers didn't get before her withdrawal last week.
Conservatives complained that Miers, the White House counsel, did not have any experience as a judge and did not have a paper trail showing a conservative judicial philosophy.
Alito has compiled a voluminous record in his career as a judge, a U.S. attorney and government lawyer. The 55-year-old judge has written an estimated 300 rulings and participated in roughly 1,500 cases in 15 years on the bench.
In addition, the National Archives says its staff would need several weeks to complete a search of Justice Department records for any material pertaining to Alito. The agency also is seeking documents at the Ronald Reagan and George Bush presidential libraries that might shed light on Alito's actions or views, the statement said.
Democrats and Republicans said Thursday they do not see any immediate reason so far for a filibuster of Alito.
"As it currently stands, I don't see any extraordinary circumstances," said Sen. Mark Pryor (search), D-Ark., a member of the bipartisan group of 14 senators who agreed this year not to support any filibuster that did not involve "extraordinary circumstances."
"But it's still early in the process," said Pryor, who met with Alito between Senate votes.