WASHINGTON - As the Senate begins its final debate on Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, the conservative jurist already has won enough commitments from senators to become the nation's 110th justice and likely tilt the high court to the right.
Senators were to consider Alito as the replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on Wednesday with an eye toward getting him on the Supreme Court before President Bush's State of the Union speech Jan. 31.
As of late Tuesday, the federal appeals court judge had enough vote commitments for confirmation - a simple majority in the 100-member Senate - with 50 Senate Republicans plus Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska publicly saying through their representatives, in interviews with The Associated Press or in news releases that they would vote for him.
One Republican, Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, made his decision after meeting with Alito in his Senate office on Tuesday. "His judicial experience is second to none and I'm confident he will do an excellent job handling his constitutional responsibility," Thomas said.
Five Republicans, 23 Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont were still publicly undecided or refused to say how they would vote on Alito's nomination. The nominee was meeting with two of the undecided Democrats, Sens. Patty Murray and Jay Rockefeller, on Wednesday in hopes of gaining their votes.
With Alito's ultimate confirmation assured, both Republicans and Democrats were preparing to use him as a campaign issue. Republicans said the Democratic filibuster of lower-court judges helped them defeat the re-election bid of former Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota two years ago.
Democrats, as they did during contentious Judiciary Committee hearings, could use the next few days on Alito's confirmation to continue the debate over the extent of presidential powers. Issues such as the Bush administration's treatment of terror suspects and its domestic spying program are likely to come before the Supreme Court.
As an appeals court judge, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Alito "refuses to enforce core constitutional standards protecting individuals against low-level government officials in routine situations. There's no reason to believe he'll say no to a president who violates individual rights under the cloak of national security."
Democrats also worry that Alito, along with new Chief Justice John Roberts, would make the court more conservative and could even help overturn major decisions such as Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that declared abortion a fundamental constitutional right.
"Roberts, who promised us humility, who promised us that he would be looking to chart a middle course, we see time and again that he's falling in league with Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, referring to Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court's most conservative members. "My fear is that we are adding a fourth vote to that coalition with Sam Alito's nomination. And that's why I'm going to vote no."
Twenty Democrats already have publicly opposed Alito's nomination. All of the eight Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted against him Tuesday, leading to a 10-8 party-line vote for the 55-year-old judge from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The only way Democrats could stop Alito is through a filibuster, a maneuver they show little interest in trying. Thus Democrats are working to get a large opposition vote to score points against President Bush.
"I think it sends a message to the American people that this guy is not King George, he's President George," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said.
Republicans say Alito is a perfect choice for the high court. They praise his parrying of Democratic attacks on his judicial record and personal credibility during his confirmation hearings this month.
"If anybody has demonstrated judicial temperament and poise and patience, it is Judge Alito, And he ought to be confirmed on that basis alone," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said.
Roberts won the votes of 22 Democrats last year, including three on the Judiciary Committee - ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont as well as Wisconsin Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl. Those three senators voted against Alito on Tuesday.