WASHINGTON - After months of preparation, Samuel Alito will face close questioning by senators to determine his fitness to be the nation's 110th Supreme Court justice.
After receiving some last-minute encouragement from President Bush at a White House breakfast Monday, Alito was scheduled to head to Capitol Hill for the start of nomination hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ten-minute opening statements by the panel's 18 members were likely to consume the session, with direct questioning of Alito beginning Tuesday and expected to last at least two days.
Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Sunday he will wrap up the hearings this week. He has called for a committee vote Jan. 17.
Republican leaders hope for confirmation by the full Senate on Jan. 20, but Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee's top Democrat, would not promise the schedule would hold.
"Obviously, if (Alito) doesn't answer the questions, then it gets out of my control. Some senator would move to hold it over. Let's hope we get all the answers so that doesn't happen," Leahy said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Alito, a conservative, 15-year member of the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, was Bush's second choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew from consideration after conservatives questioned her judicial philosophy and qualifications for the Supreme Court. Democrats also voiced doubts.
Bush then turned to Alito, 55, who previously worked as a federal prosecutor and a lawyer in the Reagan administration.
Republicans say there is no reason to delay or filibuster Alito. Senators who have met privately with Alito say he told them that his 1985 written comments maintaining there was no constitutional right to abortion were part of a job application for the Reagan administration, which opposed abortion.
At the same time, he wrote in a separate legal memo while at the Justice Department that the department should try to chip away at abortion rights rather than mount an all-out assault.
Specter, said in an advance copy of his opening statement that the hearing will be an opportunity for Alito to say publicly what he has been telling senators in private about how he would deal with the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman's right to an abortion.
"This hearing will give Judge Alito the public forum to address the issue, as he has with senators in private meetings, that his personal views and prior advocacy will not determine his judicial decision ...," said Specter, a moderate on the issue.
But no matter what Alito says, some Democrats will oppose him, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in his opening statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
"I am reluctantly inclined to the view that you and any other nominee of this president for the Supreme Court start with no more than 13 votes in this committee, and only 78 votes in the full Senate with a solid, immovable and unpersuadable block of at least 22 votes against you, no matter what you say or do," the statement said.
Abortion and presidential war powers are expected to be the main focus of the opening rounds of questions. Two areas that "Democrats and moderate Republicans feel are important: reproductive freedom is one, and all of these issues around executive authority," said Carl Tobias of the University of Richmond School of Law.
O'Connor, a justice since 1981, was a decisive swing vote on abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action and other highly contentious issues.
Specter, along with several Democrats, also told Alito before the hearing that they would press him on his feelings about presidential power during wartime.
The same senators who will question Alito will also hold hearings later this year on whether Bush can authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on conversations involving suspected terrorists in the United States without getting a court-ordered warrant.
Bush contended that his constitutional powers and the prewar resolution gave him that legal authority.
One of Alito's Democratic critics, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, said he sees tendencies by Alito to defer to the executive branch.
"In an era when the White House is abusing power, has authorized torture and is spying on American citizens, I find your support for an all-powerful executive branch and almost unlimited power for government agents to be deeply troubling," Kennedy said in a pre-released excerpt from his opening statement.