(photo credit: )
Democratic senators, leery of President George W. Bush's push to steer the nation's highest court more to the right, are expected to notch up the pressure in the days ahead on Samuel Alito, the president's nominee for the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, the second day of confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, "we get down to business," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.
The 55-year-old Alito, who Bush has put forward for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's swing seat in the politically divided court, listened to hours of partisan verbiage Monday from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Abortion is proving to be a predictably heated issue among Democrats fearful of a high court that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision. Alito also will be peppered with queries Tuesday, when questioning begins, about Bush's use of domestic spying and other actions that critics consider unconstitutional extensions of presidential power.
That issue is proving particularly contentious as Bush faces steady opposition to handling of the war in Iraq and to what civil libertarians and many lawmakers say is an attempt to commandeer executive rights not afforded the president, particularly at the expense of Americans' civil liberties. The vocal criticism of domestic spying question by Republicans and Democrats alike reflect that this is an election year for Congress.
In writings early in his career, Alito favored giving presidents a wide berth in investigative and intelligence powers. Statements in the opening of Senate confirmation hearings Monday made clear that those will not be overlooked.
The 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee read statements to put on record their likely paths during Tuesday's first question-and-answer session for Alito's nomination to be the 110th justice of the nation's highest court.
"Your record raises troubling questions about whether you appreciate the checks and balances in our Constitution - the careful efforts of our Founding Fathers to protect us from a government or a president determined to seize too much power over our lives," said Durbin, the Illinois Democrat.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said Alito's record shows "support for an all-powerful executive branch." The veteran lawmaker said this is troubling "in an era when the White House is abusing power, is excusing and authorizing torture and is spying on American citizens."
Bush had hoped that Alito - son of an Italian immigrant father and a first-generation American mother - would be confirmed without much hullaballoo and give him breathing room from continuing low poll numbers. The same polls give Alito much higher approval numbers than Bush's 40 percent.
Despite the president's wishes, however, the comments quickly took on a partisan flavor among the Judiciary Committee's 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
Alito sought to allay misgivings, saying that he would do what the law requires "in every single case" if approved for the Supreme Court.
As a federal appellate judge, "I swore that I would administer justice without respect to persons, that I would do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I would carry out my duties under the Constitution and the laws of the United States," Alito said. "And that is what I have tried to do to the very best of my ability for the past 15 years. And if I am confirmed, I pledge to you that that is what I would do on the Supreme Court."
The comments won approval from Republicans.
"Your modest approach to judging seems to bode well for our democracy," said Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, expressing the view held by many Republicans that the court's nine justices too often go beyond legal interpretation to revision of laws.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, another Republican, said Alito "has a reputation for being an exceptional and honest judge, devoted to the rule of law, and a man of integrity."
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Bush's home state, Texas, left little doubt why he supports Alito. "Groups are trying to defeat your nomination because you will not support their liberal agenda," Cornyn said, "and the reason they oppose you is precisely why I support you."
Other Republicans spoke of Alito's sterling academic record and his 15 years as a federal appeals court judge.
Abortion, which many developed countries long ago settled as a legal issue, remains perhaps the most contentious subject for the American electorate.
Before he became a judge, Alito wrote against Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that found in the Constitution a right to privacy that includes a right to abort a fetus. In 1991 he voted in an appeals case that a woman must tell her spouse should she seek an abortion.
In three other significant cases, his votes were on the side of abortion rights activists, including the Supreme Court's finding that a fetus is not a "person" in the legal sense.
"I agree with the essential point that the court is making: that the Supreme Court has held that a fetus is not a 'person' within the meaning of the 14th Amendment," Alito wrote.
If confirmed, Alito would be the fifth Catholic on the court, the first time Catholics have held a majority.
Alito was Bush's third choice to succeed O'Connor, 75, who announced six months ago that she wants to retire to care for her ill husband.
Chief Justice John Roberts cleared the Senate but was renominated to head the court when Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in August. Bush then named White House lawyer Harriet Miers, who withdrew her name under fire from conservatives.