Waiting for the inevitable on Alito

The Senate begins debate on the nomination, but the outcome isn't really in doubt.

Published January 25, 2006 4:27PM (EST)

Bill Frist, launching what will pass for debate on the nomination of Samuel Alito, said today that George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominee has "a record that demonstrates a respect for judicial restraint and aversion to political agendas on the bench and a commitment to the rule of law and the Constitution." That's not exactly how Knight Ridder put it. After examining hundreds of Alito's opinions, Knight Ridder said that the nominee has spent the past 15 years working "quietly but resolutely to weave a conservative legal agenda into the fabric of the nation's laws."

But we've gone through all of this before, and the words just don't matter anymore. Votes do, and Alito still has them. It takes a simple majority to confirm a judge. By the latest Associated Press count, 51 Republicans and one Democrat -- Ben Nelson of Nebraska -- have said that they'll vote to confirm Alito. We're still waiting to hear from 23 Democrats, independent Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords and four Republicans.

The Alito nomination should give a little pause to pro-choice Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. A pro-Alito vote from the fourth Republican, Alaska's Ted Stevens, seems like a foregone conclusion, even if he hasn't announced it yet.

The only real mystery of the moment is whether any other Democrats -- hello, Sen. Lieberman! -- will join Nelson in crossing over to vote for Alito. It's all symbolic at this point, at least insofar as the Democrats don't decide to filibuster the nominee, and that prospect seems less and less likely. As the Washington Post noted, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that a vote on Alito is a "vote of conscience," which is usually code for saying that the party's leaders aren't going to demand that their colleagues get in line behind them.

By Tim Grieve

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

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