A Democrat praises Alito, but the public is wary

Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson says the Supreme Court nominee assured him he has no "agenda."

Published November 2, 2005 6:58PM (EST)

The White House is pushing hard to pick up support for Sam Alito from moderate Democrats, and the effort seems to be working. Alito met with Sen. Ben Nelson this morning, and the Nebraska Democrat came out smiling. While Nelson didn't say how he'll vote on Alito, he was clearly impressed: He said that the nominee wasn't the kind of judge who would "hammer away and chisel away" at existing law, and that Alito had assured him that he has no "agenda."

Those sorts of assurances may not count for much -- Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said pretty much the same thing when they were up for confirmation -- but Nelson's views on the subject do. Nelson is a founding member of the "Gang of 14," the group of Senate moderates who averted a nuclear option showdown over the summer and who may hold the key to Alito's future now. If the Ben Nelsons of the world can't or won't argue persuasively that Alito's nomination presents an "extreme circumstance" justifying a filibuster, it's unlikely that the Republican members of the "Gang of 14" will help the Democrats fight off another attempt to go nuclear on the Senate rules.

The news of Nelson's apparent enthusiasm for Alito comes just as we're getting a first read on the public's view of the nominee. In a new Gallup poll released today, Americans appear to be mixed on Alito. Forty-three percent rate George W. Bush's Supreme Court choice as excellent or good while 39 percent say it's fair or poor. Those are the same sort of numbers Harriet Miers got -- and a bit worse than the initial public reception for John Roberts.

The more interesting aspect of the poll is this: A majority of Americans still don't want a justice who would roll back abortion rights. By a margin of 53 to 37 percent, Gallup's respondents said that Alito shouldn't be confirmed if it becomes clear that he'd vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Democrats ought to be able to make that case about Alito, his assurances about his lack of an "agenda" notwithstanding. The problem: Senators like Ben Nelson, not Gallup's respondents, get the final say.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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