Senate confirms Alito to the Supreme Court

The Senate confirmed Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court yesterday by a 58-42 vote, a far slimmer margin than the tally for Chief Justice John Roberts but more than enough to bring joy to conservatives.

“This is a great day for America and the Constitution,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Though the confirmation vote divided mostly along party lines, the nomination opened a deep fissure between Democrats over strategy.

On Monday, Republicans thwarted a filibuster effort that was controversial even within Democratic circles. The 72-25 vote for cloture robbed the minority party of the ability to argue that Republicans could not assemble a filibuster-proof — or 60-vote — majority for Alito.

The 15-year veteran of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals never garnered the broad support of the president’s first pick for the high court, Roberts, who was confirmed 78-22 last year. But many Democrats concluded they should not use procedural means to block Alito’s confirmation.

In the end, Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) were the only Democrats who voted to confirm Alito.  Lincoln Chafee (R.I.), who had voted for cloture, was the only Republican to oppose Alito’s confirmation. Chafee faces both primary and general-election competition for a seat that is among the Republicans’ most vulnerable, and any position on Alito was sure to bring him criticism.

Chafee’s GOP opponent, Steve Laffey, issued a critique Monday, after Chafee announced he would vote against Alito.

“It’s disappointing but not at all surprising,” Laffey said. “On key votes, Senator Chafee sides with the liberal special interests.”

Unlike the Roberts nomination, the Alito battle was highly partisan from the start. About the only thing both sides could agree upon is that he will alter the composition of the high court when he replaces swing voter Sandra Day O’Connor.

Conservatives hailed the confirmation as a sign that the court would look more favorably on their agenda.

“We do not suggest an understanding of how Justice Alito will rule on particular matters before the court, but we remain confident in the judicial philosophy he has aspired toward,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said.

The headline of his release was more succinct: “Confirmation of Alito marks turning point for our nation.”

Liberals, who have expressed fear that Alito will “roll back” civil and abortion rights, sought to paint the 42 votes against him as evidence that their fight was not entirely in vain.

“For the sake of our generation, our children, our grandchildren, our country and our freedoms, I hope and pray that these deep concerns about Judge Alito will prove unjustified,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.)

Kennedy joined home-state colleague John Kerry, who was the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2004 and may again seek the presidency in 2008, in pushing for a filibuster that many Democrats hoped to avoid.

Democrats were deeply, if not evenly, divided over the strategy of a filibuster. Many in the party, even some who voted against cloture on Monday, preferred not to engage in dilatory tactics that were certain to fail.

“You don’t put people in that spot,” said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who voted against cloture and confirmation. “I think that it was a big mistake.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the disagreements among Democrats reveal them to be independent-minded. “We’re more interested in the substance than the politics,” she said.

But Biden noted that the outcome of the cloture and confirmation votes was foreordained. “In this business, the perception of winning or losing matters,” he said.

After arguing for weeks that Alito’s rulings have been out of the mainstream, some liberals suggested yesterday that the Senate is out of the mainstream.

“Progressive Democrats, Republicans and independents must work to ensure that someday soon there will be a progressive Senate that better represents the values and beliefs of a significant majority of the American people,” said People for the American Way President Ralph Neas.

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