WASHINGTON – More than a dozen Senate Democrats supported ending debate on Samuel Alito Monday, setting up a final confirmation vote for the Supreme Court nominee on Tuesday morning.
On a 72-25 vote, senators succeeded in passing the 60-vote threshold to prevent a filibuster and allow a simple majority vote Tuesday. Nineteen Democrats joined Republicans to end debate, though many of them oppose Alito's nomination. At least 57 senators have said publicly they will vote for the nominee.
Alito could be sworn in as early as noon Tuesday, in time for a formal introduction to the nation by President Bush during his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Alito will become the 110th Supreme Court justice, replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
“Today, a bipartisan majority of senators embraced the principle of a fair, up-or-down vote for judicial nominees and rejected partisan obstruction. This vote marks another step forward in restoring fairness to the judicial nominations process," Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said in a written statement after the vote.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told FOX News that he thinks Alito should be sworn in quickly so he can appear in justice robes in the front row in the House chamber during the president's State of the Union address.
"Absolutely, he should be front and center," Frist said while leaving the Senate floor.
Bush too said he was pleased with Monday's outcome.
"The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to hold an up-or-down vote on every judicial nominee, and throughout its 216-year history, the Senate has held an up-or-down vote on every Supreme Court nominee with majority Senate support," Bush said. "Judge Alito is extraordinarily well-qualified to serve on our nation's highest court, and America is fortunate that this good and humble man is willing to serve. I look forward to the Senate voting to confirm Sam Alito as the 110th Justice of the Supreme Court."
Efforts to filibuster Alito began last week when both Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry announced they would try to lead the charge against Alito. Their efforts won the support of several liberal Democratic senators, including some who had initially opposed a filibuster. Ultimately, though, the senators could not put the brakes on a final confirmation vote.
“This was a fight over principle. Trying everything in our power to stop an ideological coup on the Supreme Court was the right thing to do. Everything in Judge Alito’s record shows that he will actively work to erode civil rights, discrimination and privacy protections. The time to fight was now, before the irreversible decision of confirming a new Supreme Court Justice was written in stone," Kerry said after the vote.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who began wrapping up the debate before final confirmation, said after the cloture vote that she was proud to have put up a fight against Alito.
"We fell short of the 41 votes we needed to send this nomination back, yet still I am pleased" with the effort, she said, because the Supreme Court "is the people's court."
Prior to the vote, Sen. Arlen Specter, a pro-choice Republican and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hailed Alito as an "A-plus" candidate for the nation's highest court who was "well qualified" to be confirmed by the Senate.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee on Monday was the first Senate Republican to announce his opposition to Alito's nomination to the high court. He said he was concerned about what he perceived as Alito's sympathetic stance on executive power in light of the administration's recently uncovered warrantless wiretapping program
Chafee, who is running for re-election this year and faces a more conservative Republican primary opponent, added that he feared Alito would be an enemy of reproductive freedom and the environment, and called himself a "pro-choice, pro-environment, pro-Bill of Rights Republican."
Though Democrats who strongly oppose Alito's confirmation to the high court may have been cheered by Chafee's support, he said Democrats could not count on his help in blocking a vote.
"How are we going to get anything done if we can't work together?" Chafee asked after saying he would vote against a filibuster, a procedural move designed to prevent a vote on a nomination.
Chafee is one of the members of the so-called Gang of 14 that unanimously supported ending debate on Alito. The gang was formed by senators seeking middle ground on judiciary nominees. A ground rule for allowing filibusters is whether "extraordinary circumstances" surround the nominee. While the gang has never explicitly defined what an extraordinary circumstance would be, members privately said there were none regarding Alito, who has sat on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals for 15 years.
Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, wasn't the only senator to cross party lines on Alito. Four Democrats — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Robert Byrd of West Virginia — have announced they would support Alito's nomination. All four supported ending the filibuster.
"Judge Alito looked me in the eye and told me that he will not conduct himself based on an ideological agenda. He promised me that he would judge each case based on its merits and protect and defend the liberties set out in the Constitution," Conrad said Monday, explaining, in part, his support for Alito.
Last week, Byrd decried the highly partisan tone of Alito's confirmation hearing, held three weeks ago, saying "something is wrong with our judicial nominations process, and we in the Senate have the power to fix it."
The West Virginia lawmaker admonished his colleagues from the Senate floor, telling them their votes should be based on Alito's qualifications not their party affiliation.
"I believe strongly that the Senate has a responsibility to provide its advice and consent with respect to a particular nominee based on the merits or demerits of that nominee — not on focus groups, celebrity endorsements, binders filled with innuendo and slanted analysis, or White House photo opportunities," the 88-year-old Democratic senator said.
Both Democratic senators from New Jersey, Alito's home state, announced Monday they would oppose Alito's nomination. Democrat Frank Lautenberg said he would vote against Alito despite having introduced him to the Senate Judiciary Committee at the opening of the confirmation hearing, and Robert Menendez announced his opposition in his first-ever floor speech as a senator. Menendez was sworn in less than two weeks ago to replace former Sen. Jon Corzine, who was elected governor of the state in November.
One of the Republicans expected to help end the debate and support Alito's confirmation was not able to attend Monday's Senate session. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was in a car accident Monday morning on the way to the airport to return to Washington, D.C. Hospitalized for "bumps and bruises," he missed the Monday afternoon cloture vote to end debate. Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also missed the vote.
If confirmed, it would be logical to see Bush introduce Alito to the nation at his State of the Union address. Typically, all nine justices are invited each year to the president's State of the Union address, but only Justice Stephen Breyer has gone in recent years. The Supreme Court did not say on Monday whether O'Connor, whose last day on the court would be Tuesday if Alito is sworn in immediately after a final vote, would attend the State of the Union.
Asked if the court had any going-away ceremonies or send-offs planned for O'Connor if Alito is confirmed Tuesday, a spokesman said no, the court has not historically held formal farewells for justices.
FOX News' Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.