WASHINGTON - The 14 centrists 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 conservative 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 all that halted a major filibuster fight between GOP leader Bill Frist and Democratic leader Harry Reid earlier this year over Bush's nominees.
The early defection of two of the group's Republicans, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, will give the GOP the upper hand if Democrats decide to attempt a filibuster of Alito, the New Jersey jurist nominated Monday to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.
If Democrats do filibuster, Frist wants to change the Senate rules to eliminate the delaying tactic - something the centrist group blocked in May.
"People like Lindsey Graham and I, who were part of that group, I think you can bet we'll be willing to vote to change the rules of the Senate so that we do not have a filibuster," DeWine said only hours after Alito was announced.
The centrist Democrats plan to urge their Republican colleagues at the group's meeting on Thursday to withhold judgment, since Alito's nomination is not even officially at the Senate yet. The defection of even two members of the group - which decided earlier in the year to support filibusters only in 'extraordinary circumstances' - would virtually ensure Frist would ultimately 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 founding 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 centrist group to join the rest of the GOP to make his goal. With a 50-vote tie in the Senate, Vice President Dick Cheney would cast the tie-breaking vote for the Republicans and Alito could be confirmed with majority support.
Bush announced Alito on Monday following the failed nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers, who was undermined by conservatives.
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 a U.S. attorney - got rave reviews by the Republicans he met on Wednesday.
The Senate's No. 2 Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, called Alito a "very, very impressive intellect and a very well-qualified nominee." Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas added, "Unless something very different comes out that we don't know about, I certainly would intend to support him."
After a brief flurry of filibuster talk immediately following Alito's nomination, Senate Democrats now 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 Wednesday. "It's way too early."
Nelson said he had received assurances from Alito "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."
Durbin said that the judge never refused to answer any of his questions - as Miers and John Roberts had during their private interviews - and that Alito told him he saw a right to privacy in the Constitution, one of the building blocks of the court's landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.
Alito said when it came to his dissent on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a case in which the 3rd Circuit struck down a Pennsylvania law that included a provision requiring women seeking abortions to notify their spouses, "he spent more time worrying over it and working on that dissent than any he had written as a judge," Durbin recounted.