WASHINGTON – Long-smoldering Democratic dissension flared openly Friday as liberals sought support for a last-minute filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito against the advice of leaders worried about a backlash in the 2006 elections.
"I reject those notions that there ought to somehow be some political calculus about the future. ... The choice is now," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the party's 2004 presidential candidate and a White House hopeful for 2008. He said it was imperative to fight for "those people who count on us to stand up and protect them."
Two of the party's Senate leaders, Harry Reid of Nevada and Charles Schumer of New York, privately made clear their unhappiness with the strategy, even though they, too, oppose Alito's confirmation. And Rep. Harold Ford, seeking a Senate seat in Republican-leaning Tennessee, dismissed the filibuster approach openly.
"It does not appear that there is any reason to hold up a vote. I hope my colleagues in the Senate will move quickly to bring this process to a dignified end," he said.
Despite a decision by Kerry, Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and others to try and block a final vote, leaders of both parties agreed that Alito's confirmation was assured for next Tuesday. The 55-year-old appeals court judge would replace Sandra Day O'Connor, who has cast deciding votes in recent years in 5-4 rulings on controversial issues such as abortion rights, affirmative action and the death penalty.
Democrats fear he would shift the court rightward on those and other issues.
Because of moves by Kerry, Kennedy and others, supporters of Alito's nomination must produce 60 votes on Monday to advance his nomination — and an Associated Press tally shows at least 62.
That would clear the way for a final vote on Tuesday. The AP tally shows at least 53 Republicans and three Democrats intend to vote to confirm Alito, well over the required majority.
Reid announced he would side with Alito's critics on Monday, though on Thursday he had made clear his unhappiness with their strategy. "There has been adequate time for people to debate," he had said Thursday. "I hope this matter will be resolved without too much more talking."
Those remarks drew a pointed rebuttal from the NAACP and People for The American Way, two organizations that often work closely with Democrats in Congress. "With just two days of debate having passed, this must rank among the shortest debates for a controversial Supreme Court nomination in modern times," they said in a written statement.
Democrats have been arguing for several days whether to attempt a filibuster designed to keep Alito off the bench, according to officials familiar with the deliberations.
These officials said both Reid and Schumer of New York, who heads the party's effort to gain Senate seats in 2006, have stressed the drawbacks. Among them were the certainty of defeat, the impression of political weakness that would convey and the potential impact on candidates on the ballot in 2006 in Republican-leaning states. Both men oppose Alito's confirmation.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, sided with Kennedy, Kerry and others, contending Alito's record was troubling enough to warrant a filibuster, and that in political terms, core Democratic voters would be energized by a last-ditch stand.
Among the rank and file, there was opposition to a filibuster from several lawmakers, including liberal Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and North Dakota's Kent Conrad, a moderate who is on the ballot this fall in a Republican state.
Democratic officials said Mikulski had said during this week's closed-door caucus that the 2006 and 2008 elections were more important than a symbolic last stand that would fail to prevent Alito's confirmation. Her spokesman declined comment.
The officials who described the comments did so on condition of anonymity, citing the private nature of the discussions.
In an interview, Conrad said that in remarks to fellow Democrats at the caucus, he outlined several factors. These included Alito's strong backing from the American Bar Association, his uncontested confirmation 15 years ago to the appeals court, public opinion polls and the fact that Republicans had voted overwhelmingly to confirm Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer when President Clinton nominated them. "So I put that all together and I find it makes it hard to justify a filibuster," he said.
For the most part, Republicans were content to stand aside while Democrats aired their internal differences. But White House spokesman Scott McClellan couldn't resist a jab at Kerry, Bush's vanquished campaign rival from 2004.
"I think even for a senator, it takes some pretty serious yodeling to call for a filibuster from a five-star ski resort in the Swiss Alps," he said.
Kerry first publicly made known his support for a last stand against Alito from Switzerland, where he was attending the World Economic Forum. He flew home overnight to speak on the Senate floor.