WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito takes his first step toward the high court with a preordained Senate Judiciary Committee victory Tuesday, but the strength of opposition among panel Democrats may forecast his margin of victory in the full Senate.
The GOP-controlled committee was advancing the nomination of Alito - President Bush's pick to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - on Tuesday. All 10 Republican senators already have announced their support for the conservative judge, leaving the eight Democrats with no way to stop the committee from giving him a positive report.
"You don't have to worry about him in the committee," Bush said at Kansas State University on Monday. He called Alito "a very, very smart, capable man. When you talk to Sam Alito, you think, 'smart judge.'"
But Alito's liberal critics are worried that Alito may defer too much to Bush and swing the court to the right. They fear his replacement of O'Connor will bring conservatives a decisive fifth vote on cases involving abortion, affirmative action and the death penalty.
Half of the committee's eight Democrats - Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California - have announced their opposition to his nomination. Many expect the other four - Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Joseph Biden of Delaware and Charles Schumer of New York - to join them.
After the committee votes, Alito's nomination goes to the full Senate for a final vote as early as this week. Republicans want Alito on the Supreme Court before Bush gives his State of the Union address on Jan. 31.
In recent judicial battles, a 10-8 party line vote would be the first sign of the possibility of a Democratic-led filibuster. But Democrats are not expected to try that with Alito, a former federal prosecutor and lawyer for the Reagan administration who parried sharp Democratic attacks on his judicial record and personal credibility without a major stumble during his confirmation hearings earlier this month.
Democrats are expected, however, to try to persuade as many senators in their party to vote against him as possible on the Senate floor.
Critics of Alito plan to protest and march this week to try to turn votes against the 55-year-old judge who is now on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Only one Democrat so far is supporting Alito, conservative Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts won the votes of 22 Democrats last year.
By comparison, 11 Democrats broke with their party and voted for President George H.W. Bush's nominee - Clarence Thomas - in 1991. Thomas' 52-48 confirmation vote was the closest margin of success for a Supreme Court justice in a century.
But few expect Alito's opponents to be successful. Most, if not all, of the Senate's 55 Republicans are expected to support Alito and most of the 44 Democrats to oppose him. Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont has not said how he will vote.