WASHINGTON – So far this year, the civil rights and women's groups opposed to President Bush's conservative court nominees have been rebuffed, rebuked and rejected.
And that's just by Senate Democrats.
Now, in the early stages of the most momentous Supreme Court nomination struggle in nearly 15 years, these organizations seek Democratic cohesiveness and then hope to enlist enough Republicans to keep Judge Samuel Alito from taking the swing seat held by Sandra Day O'Connor. It won't be easy.
"I do think it's winnable. I think that the more Americans know about Alito's record, they will be extremely fearful of his confirmation," says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance For Justice, an association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women's, children's and consumer advocacy organizations.
"These are very different circumstances" from John Roberts' nomination as chief justice, says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Ralph Neas, president of People For the American Way, adds, "We welcome the opportunity to clarify the differences between the right wing ... and the overwhelming majority of the American people."
With two months before an expected vote on Alito, the groups are deploying organizers to key states and raising money for a television campaign. There is no minimizing the magnitude of the task: Republicans hold 55 of the 100 seats in the Senate, and Progress for America, an organization with close ties to the White House, is waging a strong campaign on behalf of Alito.
Add to that the recent show of political muscle by conservative groups who forced Harriet Miers to withdraw her nomination, and now back Alito. When it comes to the courts, Aron, Henderson, Neas and their allies have no comparable trophy after a year in which they all have differed with the Democratic leadership.
If their chief goal is to prevent a sharp conservative shift on the courts, it's not yet clear how far Senate Democrats will fight Alito, knowing that Bush would probably follow up with another, possibly more conservative, replacement. Party leaders have shown more eagerness in confronting Bush when it has been compatible with their overriding objective of gaining seats in the 2006 elections.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee, underscored their political objectives recently to Henderson and other representatives of groups opposed to Alito's nomination.
In a private session, Reid and Schumer urged the groups to show restraint when lobbying Democrats from states that Bush won in 2004 — senators from Nebraska, Arkansas, the Dakotas and elsewhere who probably will be the most tempted to support the appointment. Officials who described the session did so on condition of anonymity, citing the confidential nature of the conversation.
Reid, in his first year as party leader, first angered groups opposed to Bush's court nominees last spring. Hoping to head off a showdown over appeals court nominees, he privately told Republicans he would allow confirmation for a few of the appointments that Democrats had long blocked.
Aron made her disagreement plain. "We don't want a deal. We have worked too hard, since we see these nominees as really extreme," she said at the time.
Reid's efforts to compromise with the GOP faltered, but a short while later, seven Democrats and seven Republicans brokered a deal to allow confirmation of several of the stalled judicial nominations, leave two others in limbo and prevent a showdown.
A few months later, John Roberts' nomination to be chief justice sparked fresh disagreement.
NARAL-Pro Choice America, the abortion rights group, made some Democrats uncomfortable when it aired a television commercial that sought to link Roberts to violence at abortion clinics.
The group quickly retreated. "We regret that many people have misconstrued our recent advertisement about Mr. Roberts' record," Nancy Keenan, president of the organization, said of the short-lived commercial.
There were other differences. At one session, Neas urged Reid to publicly announce opposition to the president's pick to replace the late William Rehnquist. Reid demurred.
Reid eventually opposed Roberts' confirmation.
Not so Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. He said he would vote in favor of the appointment. Neas issued a stinging statement saying the Vermonter's vote "will make him complicit" in any future Roberts' rulings that mark a "retreat from our constitutional rights and liberties."
In the end, Roberts' confirmation was never in doubt, given unanimous support from Senate Republicans. Yet the final roll call was a bitter one for groups working against him. When the vote came, 22 Democrats supported Roberts, 22 opposed him.
If Neas and other Alito opponents were unhappy with Democratic senators, the opposite was also true.
Referring to the criticism of Leahy, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he was "deeply disturbed by some statements that were made by largely Democratic advocacy groups. ..."
"The knee-jerk unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks on Sen. Leahy's motives were unjustified," said Obama, who voted against confirming Roberts.