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'Gang of 14' breaks down, smoothing way for Alito

Associated Press
Published November 3, 2005


WASHINGTON - The 14 senators who averted a Senate breakdown over judicial nominees last spring are showing signs of splintering on President Bush's latest nominee for the Supreme Court.

That is weakening the hand of Democrats opposed to Judge Samuel Alito and enhancing his prospects for confirmation.

The unity of the seven Democrats and the seven Republicans in the "Gang of 14" was key to preventing a filibuster fight between Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Democratic leader Harry Reid earlier this year over some of the president's lower court nominees.

The departure of two of the group's Republicans, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, could hurt if Democrats attempt a filibuster of Alito, the New Jersey jurist Bush nominated Monday to replace retiring Sandra Day O'Connor.

If Democrats do filibuster, Frist has said he would change the Senate rules to eliminate the delaying tactic - something the group blocked in May.

But a filibuster "based on a judicial philosophy difference, or an ideologically driven difference, I don't believe that, with all sincerity, I could let that happen," Graham said Wednesday at a news conference.

DeWine also made clear Tuesday after meeting with the judge that he would vote to ban a Democratic filibuster.

"It's hard for me to envision that anyone would think about filibustering this nominee," he said.

Graham said he would use the group's next meeting on Thursday to "inform them of my view."

The departure of even two members of the group - which decided earlier in the year to support filibusters only in "extraordinary circumstances" - would all but ensure that Frist, R-Tenn., would win a showdown.

"The truth of the matter is that it's way too early to talk about extraordinary circumstances," said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a member of the group. "I'm not hearing any of my colleagues talk about it, and I'd rather not hear any of my colleagues on the other side talk about it as well."

The loss of Graham and DeWine makes the "Gang of 14" less influential.

Republicans hold 55 seats in the Senate, and while confirmation requires a simple majority, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.

However, Frist needs only a simple majority - 51 votes - to eliminate the stalling tactic.

That means he needs two members of the group to join the rest of the GOP to meet his goal. With a 50-vote tie in the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney would cast the tie-breaking vote and Alito could be confirmed with majority support.

Bush announced Alito's nomination after his first nominee, White House counsel Harriet Miers, chose to withdrew her from consideration.

The 55-year-old Alito - who has served for 15 years on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after being a government lawyer and U.S. attorney - got rave reviews from the Republicans he met Wednesday.

Alito is a "very, very impressive intellect and a very well qualified nominee," said the Senate's No. 2 Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"Unless something very different comes out that we don't know about, I certainly would intend to support him," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said.

After a flurry of filibuster talk immediately following Alito's nomination, Senate Democrats now say they are taking a wait-and-see stance.

"I don't know a single Democrat who is saying that it's time for a filibuster, that we should really consider it," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, after meeting with Alito on Wednesday. "It's way too early."

Nelson said Alito had assured him "that he wants to go to the bench without a political agenda, that he is not bringing a hammer and chisel to hammer away and chisel away on existing law."