Dems resume Alito battle

Top Senate Democrats shifted their focus back to Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito yesterday, signaling a willingness to battle on a nomination they sought to divert attention from just a few weeks ago.

Top Senate Democrats shifted their focus back to Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito yesterday, signaling a willingness to battle on a nomination they sought to divert attention from just a few weeks ago.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) seized on a 1985 job application in which Alito wrote, “I am and always have been a conservative” and said he was proud to have participated in cases in which the government argued, consistent with his own beliefs, that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”

Alito’s Justice Department application was released Monday by the Ronald Reagan library and immediately served as grist for liberal activists who fear that, if confirmed, he would help overturn the high court’s decision in the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed women the right to have an abortion.

“Past nominees have said they could not discuss these issues for fear of creating a perception of bias,” Schumer said in a floor speech yesterday. “Here, unfortunately, the application itself creates the perception of bias, and it will be essential for Judge Alito to address the issue head on.”

Reid, an opponent of abortion rights, focused on President Bush’s decision not to consult with Democrats on the Alito nomination, a potential lack of diversity on the court and the role conservatives played in the selection process and the withdrawal of Harriet Miers, Bush’s previous choice for the seat.

“While I approach the confirmation process with an open mind, even at this early stage I have a number of significant concerns,” said Reid, who, along with Kennedy and Schumer, voted against the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts in late September.

The decision by leading Democrats to revisit Alito’s nomination before leaving town for Thanksgiving represents a break from previous efforts to keep the Iraq war on the front burner — and possibly new confidence in their ability to battle on judicial nominations, an issue that Republicans have used on the stump in recent elections.

At the beginning of the month, Senate Democrats shifted attention from Alito to questions about the administration’s handling of intelligence in the buildup to the Iraq war by calling for a rare closed session of the Senate to discuss progress — or what they viewed as a lack of progress — on the second phase of an Intelligence Committee probe of the White House’s use of information and justification for the war.

Administration critics claimed that Bush had nominated Alito quickly in the wake of Miers’s withdrawal to deflect attention from the indictment of Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, on charges that he lied to a grand jury, obstructed justice and provided false information to federal agents in an investigation into the disclosure of the name of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame.

Though Democratic lawmakers and aides sought to draw a distinction between the Iraq war issues and their focus yesterday on the Alito nomination, it is clear that they believe they are beginning to capitalize on public dissatisfaction with Republican leaders.

“Republicans are against the ropes right now, and Democrats are landing body blow after body blow,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Bush’s approval rating dipped to 37 percent in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released this week, and the same poll showed Democrats with a 12-point advantage over Republicans on the question of which party should control Congress.

On Tuesday, the Senate adopted a GOP amendment that closely mirrored a Democratic amendment calling on the White House to begin issuing regular progress reports to Congress on progress in Iraq, a reflection, Democrats said, of a desire for the administration to alter its policy.

Republicans are planning to hit back on the Iraq issue after the Thanksgiving break, according to a GOP leadership aide.

“They can’t change history in terms of how they voted,” the aide said, referring to Democrats who supported the 2002 resolution giving Bush the authority to wage war in Iraq.

Some Democrats are clearly spoiling for a fight on Alito.

“The most important thing we must look at is Judge Alito’s judicial record, and at least on a first perusal, there are reasons to be troubled,” Schumer said. “In case after case after case, Judge Alito gives the impression of applying meticulous legal reasoning, but each time he happens to reach the most conservative result.”

Alito met with several other senators yesterday, including Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), members of the centrist Gang of 14 who struck a deal averting a showdown over filibusters earlier this year.

Snowe, a supporter of abortion rights, said Alito told her that he has changed since the job application, according to several media reports.

“He didn’t repudiate what he said. What he did say is he change,” Snowe said, according to Bloomberg News.

“It is still too early to decide whether or not I will vote to confirm Judge Alito to the Supreme Court,” Landrieu said after her meeting. “The Judiciary Committee has a great deal of work ahead, and we must allow the committee members to fully complete their important work before any decisions are made.”